The beautiful thing about communicating on forums like LinkedIn is that sometimes it re-activates long lost connections. Last week – after posting about my experiences as a Masters student of Organisational Dynamics – it reignited memories shared with ex fellow students and a little flurry of “oh wow – remember THAT!” messages. It was also really nice to receive an invitation from the good people at NIODA (the organisation currently offering the Masters degree) to join a large study group on Monday night, hosted in a virtual forum.
If you missed last week’s blog – the task of a study group is to observe the group dynamic, as it occurs, in the here and now. Traditionally study groups are hosted in person. Chairs are arranged in an open circle (groups of up to 30) or spiral (larger groups). The groups are held by ‘consultants’ (teachers) to the group who maintain the task and time boundaries by offering up observations about what’s going on in the group and calling it at the end of the 60min mark.
There were many observations offered up by the group over the course of 60 minutes (and yes….lot’s of awkward silences too!). But it was the comments about the virtual experience that I found particularly fascinating. (And for those that were there – forgive me if the wording below is not exactly right).
“I feel exposed by the nature of the visual, but also protected because while you can see my face and background, you can’t see the rest of me”
“I’m distracted by the visual of seeing myself. It stops me from noticing what I think and instead I’m noticing how I look”
“This visual (faces in many boxes) reminds me of a hive with many bees. Bees produce honey, but they can also sting”.
“I’m afraid to make a fool of myself”.
“I’m frustrated that I’m reduced to a box on a screen”.
“I’m with you but not really with you. I’m here but not really here”.
“When I turn off my video and can no longer see myself, it makes me feel like I no longer exist”.
“When someone else turns off their video, it makes me wonder what they are doing”.
In reality, we are all grappling with this new medium of being mentally present but physically distant. Many of us have used this medium in regular practice, but never on this scale. There is no doubt that communicating in a virtual format creates a new dynamic in which trust is harder to build because there is stuff going on outside the visual box that we can’t see. Much of human communication is transmitted through body language and we are missing a large portion of that when all we can see is your neck, shoulders, face, and the most impressive corner of your house.
The added distraction is the playback of our own video. We are processing not just what we think and feel but also how we appear to be thinking and feeling. This is not necessarily a bad thing – some of us are finally realising how stupid our thinking faces are! But it takes real estate in our brains, and our focus away from the person or people who are meant to be at the centre of our attention.
The reality is, to foster safety, engagement and connection in virtual meetings – we need to work harder at it. We can no longer rest on the same cues we used to when meeting in person.
I’m grateful for Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts and all these wonderful ways we still get to connect through this time of social distancing. Connecting meaningfully through these forums is absolutely possible. It just takes a little more effort.