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The Last Seconds Before the Virtual Meeting Ends

Pay attention to non-verbal communication


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Marcos Gonçalves

2 years ago | 4 min read

Working from home for twelve months straight obliterated my capacity to meet people spontaneously. Informal events need to be officialized in the calendar and the formal ones suffer from all the “digital noise” created by the bad usage of digital platforms like Teams or Zoom.

On top of that, we didn’t fully embody the real remote work, keeping traditional principles used in a traditional office and assuming they could be 100% transposed into a digital and remote ecosystem.

The interaction magic that happens when you enter a physical meeting room and start chatting with your peers about trivial (yet connective) topics — “how’s your mother?”, “do you need help with that?”, “just had amazing vacations, let me tell you about that!” — before the real deal starts, are somehow lost.

Although assertiveness is good, getting straight to the point may block people from establishing the touchpoint on group belonging. In other words, when you feel virtually disengaged from your peer group and you start rationalizing only on professional topics, you block yourself from emotional attachment.

Let’s take icebreakers as an example. By definition, these are the benefits of using an icebreaker:

1) Establishes a friendly informal climate for formal learning to follow. 
2) Puts participants at ease and in a more positive frame of mind. 
3) Helps to break up any cliques that may be existent with the group. 
4) Creates a non-threatening environment and promotes laughter which helps any existing tensions decrease. 
5) Facilitates the getting-acquainted process and enhances honest communication. 

All the highlighted statements point us to emotional attachment, which drives us to rapport, the weapon of choice upon engagement. Ken Haman perfectly described it in his article:

When you feel comfortable and in rapport with someone, mirror neurons in your brain are activated and chemicals like dopamine, norepinephrine and oxytocin are released into your bloodstream.

This happens when the person you’re talking with matches your posture and movements and paces the speed of your words and the tonality of your voice.
(…)
when a conversation takes place through a virtual channel, these natural responses don’t get activated. A face on a screen is tiny, which limits the nonverbal cues that the presenter can see.

Our devices’ diminished the audio quality and tends to flatten the richness of the spoken word, making it nearly impossible to pick up on the nuances of vocal tone.

This makes it much harder to match and pace someone on a screen than it is when (s)he is close by, full-scale and three-dimensional. With so many of the usual nonverbal cues missing, virtual meetings are profoundly less real.

As someone eager to keep rich interactions with my peer group, I started to pay close attention to how people behave in virtual meetings. I would not say it’s a trend but some people build a “mask” to disguise their own feelings and enforce emotional detachment.

Probably as a defense mechanism, they emulate something they are not for the sake of psychological safety. The reasons? Who knows… Each person has their own story. The impact? The degradation in how they collaborate.

Oddly, in the last seconds of some meetings, I noticed glimpses of their real self right before they disconnect the session. After the first person says “see you next time” and starts a wave of goodbyes, some people showcase facial expressions and body language completely different from what they exhibited during the meeting itself.

Did they know they were still online and visible to others? Does their subconscious play a trick on them, erupting some emotion that was not matching the behavior?

Often I saw people keeping it straight and cool for the whole meeting only to ‘lose it’ on those last seconds with faces of uncertainty, frustration, or relief. They exhibited those emotions through facial expressions, body language, or an almost imperceptible sound that would match the state of mind.

I’m not, by far, an expert on non-verbal communication. I’m just paying close attention to people. When I see such a non-verbal reaction, I reach the person out to dig on what just happened.

I’ll not focus on his/her facial & body expressions but rather on what they feel about what just happened. Sometimes they need to vent. Somehow, they feel uncomfortable doing it in front of a large crowd (even a virtual one) or the meeting setup did not create the conditions for their voice to be heard.

One way or the other, the virtual entrapment extrapolates what is seen as a dragging counterforce for collaboration: not having a trustful ecosystem to share opinions openly and assertively. Putting a cork back into our emotional bottle will increase anxiety levels and probably lead to an emotional outburst that causes friction upon other people's engagement.

Meaning, don’t wear a “mask” in your virtual encounters so you can comply with what is socially correct upon these remote times. Showcase your fears, concerns, and doubts thoughtfully, so others can also open themselves and do the same.

Although conceiving the arrangements for everyone to participate actively in a virtual & remote setup is an important discussion — see Liberating Structures as a good starting point — the point here is: keep close attention to your peer group upon virtual engagement; probably you can save someone’s day just by caring about what happens in those last seconds of a meeting.

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Marcos Gonçalves


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