March 31, 2020
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Sue Heilbronner
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Communication
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Running Conscious Virtual Meetings on Zoom: Hot Tips and Ahas

There has never been a better time for (virtual) leadership.

There’s never been a more important time for good leadership, and for now, for most of us, that leadership is virtual.

Like everyone else, I’ve been running heaps of meetings online in the last month as COVID-19 has forced us all to stop traveling and work from home. There is no sign that this will change anytime soon, and I wanted to sharpen my skillset and share a few things I’ve been deploying as my best practices. Nothing biblical about my suggestions -- they are just currently what I’m up to. I’d love to hear what you’re doing that’s working.

Most of the meetings I run are coaching, consulting, or facilitation engagements where I endeavor to bring more presence or Conscious Leadership to the meeting. Often I want to instigate authentic, connected conversations, and I have a huge appetite for delivering on those promises virtually. 

I love meeting in person. It’s my favorite way of engaging. I’ve never liked the phone. Email is fine, but not remotely intimate for me. As such, my goal as a virtual facilitator is to try to create the level of intimacy virtually that I can develop in person. I am not trying to reinvent the wheel, I am also not optimizing for using as many tools as I can. I want to do the opposite: nurture a climate of presence, self-awareness, and openness in a group setting. As many of you likely know, the hardest thing to achieve with complex technology is a simple, connected user experience.

With that mindset front and center, I offer the following tips for creating conscious virtual meetings on Zoom. I learned many of these from other people, and I’ve endeavored to give credit where it is due. Why Zoom? Because I think it’s the best available tool for this job at this time.

  • Minimize distractions. When I do live facilitation, I ask attendees to make a conscious, clear agreement about the use of technology. I ask them to bring paper and pens for notes. I think the same idea applies to virtual meetings. It is way easier to have more distractions on virtual, so I ask participants to agree to turn on the Do Not Disturb feature on all of their devices (including the device we’re speaking on) and to close out of all notifying programs. If external materials need to be viewed, I prefer people print those and look at them offline. If printing isn’t possible, I like to share a screen so we can look at something together.
  • Optimize the view. In a live room, I like people to be seated in a circle with no chairs or tables in the way. I want to create that experience as much as I can on Zoom for smaller meetings. I ask attendees to use “gallery view” most often except when a single person is doing a presentation. “Speaker view” works best for that situation. Thanks to my friend Raena, I discovered the “side-by-side view” option in Zoom (upper right under “view options.” This allows a user to see more people squares even when someone is sharing a screen. 
  • Speak intentionally. I like people to be on mute. Yes, this misses the occasional blurts that can make meetings feel more generative, but I think the tradeoff is required to make a great virtual meeting. Mute is especially important now when everyone is working at home, not everyone has a home office, kids are home, and background noise is unavoidable. I also prefer that people not do a lot of one-on-one chat in Zoom. In the same way that in live meetings, I prefer that attendees do not engage in side conversations and that they speak intentionally. Thanks to my friend Michael Fauscette at G2, I learned that if the chat window is not open, you can simply click on your space bar and hold it down (like a walkie-talkie, if you’re over 40) to toggle mute off for a quick interaction. 
  • Engage the quiet tiles. I know I just said I prefer for people to be on mute, but I want to add an extra plug here for drawing out the less vocal attendees even more in the virtual arena. My dear friend Danielle explained that she feels an added level of pressure to say something brilliant in virtual meetings. She surmised that it might be the extra act of hitting unmute--It feels like stepping on stage. For some, it can up the ante on whatever one has to say. It is a step that most definitely is not part of our offline meeting behavior. I realize I have it too. At times, that “unmute” button can feel to me like a worthiness button. I’m watching that in myself and also taking extra steps to watch it with others.
  •  Loop with the group. I learned about “looping” with a group from my friend and teacher Diana Chapman, and I think she learned about this from her friend and teacher Katie Hendricks, who created the term Loop of Awareness. I apply the idea of looping to my role as a meeting attendee or facilitator by constantly moving between my internal awareness of my own experience in a meeting and my sense of the group’s experience.I think honing your internal and external awareness is more important in virtual facilitation than in live facilitation. Regardless of your role in a virtual meeting, I recommend taking your 100% Responsibility around speaking, pausing, breathing, timing, inviting, and more.
  •  Use Conscious Communication and Conscious Listening. We miss nuance more in virtual settings, and because of that, it is more important than ever to step up your skills of intentional listening. Practice reflecting back someone’s statement or question, or highlighting a person’s point - especially if that person is more of a quiet tile. I also recommend using four parts of conscious communication. To ensure alignment and avoid misunderstandings, take pains to let people in your meetings know what kind of contribution you are making:
  1. Suggestion – an idea or contribution I make to a conversation
  2. Preference – a statement that represents something I want
  3. Request for Agreement – an ask that I and one or more others come to an agreement on regarding the who, what, and when around a topic with authentic bilateral or multilateral consent
  4. Order – a direction I offer where I have decision rights and where I’m requiring that something occur.
  • Use check-ins. I love ways to bring people fully into a meeting, and given how much distance there is between us at the moment, I think it’s more than worth the time it takes. I ask people to answer with just one “out breath” -- the number of words that fit into a single exhale (e.g., “I feel fantastic about our last sales team offsite”).  I model that, and I enforce it early if people’s answers are too long. I use check-ins that are similar to the ones I use during in-person meetings, but I do a few things to better emulate the experience of going in a circle without creating distractions. I don’t like having to keep track of who has spoken. It feels like pressure to me, and I think others feel the same way. Here are two ways to create a “circle” for a check-in without the facilitator calling on people or anyone having to remember who has spoken. This matters because on Zoom the “tiles” aren’t in the same order on everyone’s screen.
  1. In Zoom chat, post a list of names of everyone on the call. Ask a check-in question (my recent favorite is from my friend Julie: “how are you, really?”), and ask the attendees to answer in order of the list in chat, asking each person to “toss” to the next person on the list when they’re done. This handoff promotes engagement in and of itself, and it takes the facilitator out of the “calling on” game.
  2. Another option is to ask all attendees to use the “hand raise” feature (by clicking the three dots on their tile). Then, if you’re facilitating the meeting, call on one person, that person answers the question, then lowers their hand and tosses it to another person that is still showing a raised hand, and so on. This takes away the pressure of remembering who has and hasn’t taken a turn.
  • Find ways to create virtual magic. I got this idea from my friend Tara. In a large meeting of a distributed team, ask everyone to type their city and state in the chat and ask one attendee to read all the cities out loud as people are typing them. Tara called this a “waterfall,” and you can use it with other short answers. Another tactic Kaley Klemp recommended is inviting people to change their Zoom names from typical “first last” to “first + current emotional state.” I love this and enjoy how people organically change their emotional labels during meetings. 
  • A few smaller things to know about Zoom facilitation that I learned through user error.
  • Chat is not fixed. If you start a chat early and you have people joining after some chat posts, they will not see those posts. As such, start the chat when everyone is on.
  • Breakout room functionality is wonderful. It’s not simple to send fixed (versus evaporating) messages into the breakout rooms from the host/facilitator, so ask people to “jot down” a direction if you want them to have it. They will not have access to the main group chat once they are in a breakout room (so there’s no use posting directions there). If you’re using breakout rooms, manually initiate an early time warning, as Zoom only provides one countdown timed warning (default is 60 seconds, but you can change this manually when you set up rooms. But after that countdown, participants are abruptly returned to the main room.
  • You can have a co-host in a Zoom meeting. To activate that functionality, you must change the default setting in your Zoom account. Currently, there are important host functions that a co-host cannot perform (most notably, creating breakout rooms).
  • You can turn off the “ding” that happens by default when a new person comes into your meeting. Change that in your Zoom settings.
  • Amplifying physical reactions to things (celebration, joy) can be helpful as people will miss subtle reactions in the tile-sized images.
  • People’s screen real estate matters. If you have a 42-inch monitor, do some practice to experience what things look like on a 13-inch laptop. It’s different, and scale fonts in shared presentations and other assumptions (side document referencing) accordingly.
  • Zoom’s whiteboard is basically a fail. Others can contribute by going to “annotate” in view options if the host has made that form of collaboration available in their Zoom settings, but to my mind, you’re better off with a person sharing their screen in G Suite or Office or using Chat for iterative typed collaboration. Zoom, jump on this.

I promised a couple of aha moments that have arisen for me as life has gone virtual. Here goes.

First, Zoom makes interrupting so much harder. How amazing is that?! People can’t effectively speak over each other (as if that is ever effective in person). Take full advantage of this microphone issue, and try to notice interrupting behavior more. Then try to curb it. If you’re talking a lot, pause and let others find their way into the conversation. If you are part of a majority personality type, gender, race, office location, or level in a conversation and you hear someone from a minority group, stop talking and let that other person talk. Zoom, please do not improve the product to optimize for interrupting.

Second, in theory, it would be stone simple for Zoom to compute how much every person speaks in a meeting. Remember when Hollywood began putting attention on gender and racial equality, using the Bechdel Test and computing the percentage of speaking time in movies? Zoom absolutely has the ability to flip the switch on a counter of speaking time by person, and as a leader or facilitator, I would love to have access to that information. It would be a treasure trove of learning for how people could improve the quality of their meetings and contributions of participants. Zoom, do this!

Third, I have been a part of countless annual in-person kickoffs for companies with globally distributed teams. These are wildly expensive affairs, and I’ve never been certain of the ROI of flying people in from remote offices for a few days of presentations and socializing. I have also long ago made a decision that I will not do in-person facilitation with a group and have people join virtually. It’s unequal, inconvenient, and a sub-optimal experience for all in my opinion. What strikes me about the current climate when I blend these two threads is that COVID-19 may change everything: First, we may see the folly of bringing global teams physically together and save a fortune in travel, lodging, and more. Second, a company with a head office and other remote offices no longer has to imagine that a global meeting is expensive or awkward. When everyone is on Zoom, there are no “offices.” There is definitely no head office. We are all equal. 

Last, I have noticed in the virtual meetings I’ve been facilitating (in whole or in part) that my internal critic gets a bit activated. I can’t see or feel the sense of “transformation” I sometimes imagine occurs in live meetings. Still, in most meetings I’ve led recently where I’ve followed these steps for authenticity and intimacy, a number of people have commented that the experience of connection felt unique, refreshing, and calming. So the last aha is for me: most meetings and conversations, whether in-person or on Zoom, are not intimate. If you can create any sense of presence in any encounter, live or not, it’s an achievement. I’m going to keep reminding myself that is enough.

As we rather quickly begin to see the efficiencies and possibilities we can create with virtual meetings – particularly when we’re able to generate connection in these sessions – I think the business world will change forever. It likely already has. So, tune up your virtual meetings, get more productive, amplify your presence, keep up the good work cutting your carbon footprint, and above all, stay safe and healthy.

Happy Zoomin’!


Sue Heilbronner

Co-founder MergeLane & Leadership Camp, coach, speaker, advisor, conscious leadership trainer.

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