Practical Tips for Fostering Connection in Digital Communication

What you can do today to make online meetings more effective

All kinds of research shows that staying connected is essential for effective teamwork. This article describes some tips you can take to heart as a facilitator or participant, to foster an meeting atmosphere where people are able to connect.

All of tips below are not rocket science or complete from a facilitation point of view. All tips are contributing to an atmosphere where people are able to be seen, heard and not obstructed to connect.

As a participant

Have you ever been in that awkward moment, where people stare at each other in silence (or worse, do other work on a second screen with the camera on) and the silence seems to last for ever? Below you’ll find some practical things to do to foster an atmosphere where it’s possible to connect as a participant.

1. Awkward silence? Ask the most powerful question

The call started, not everyone is checked in and while waiting for the others, the silence is hard to endure. How to get the conversation started beyond : “I’m doing fine, and you?”.

I found the most powerful question to ask in this case is :
Hey John, what’s on top of your mind? “.

This is my default go-to question if I don’t have anything more personal to ask. It just works all the time.
It’s useful in more conversations, as written in this book.

2. Be vocal, express how you feel

Reading the room for non-verbal communication in an offline setting is already hard. In an online call it’s even harder, for everyone. This means all participants should be more vocal about the things that they would otherwise have communicated in a non-vocal way. These non-vocal communications are/should normally be picked up (easier) by the group or the facilitator and given the attention they need.

For example, if you feel there is tension about a topic/interaction in a meeting, there are probably 2 things true:

  • Most of the time you’re not the only one feeling it, and
  • Most of the time it’s easier to just let it go, because it ‘feels uncomfortable’.

Next time you are in a situation like this, I challenge you to say something like : “I am feeling a tension about this topic. I want to understand why. Can we talk about that for a minute before we continue on the topic?
You’ll be amazed by the responses and what it triggers.
Make sure your expression is about you, what your intention is and ask for buy in to discuss.
It will always help the group forward.

3. Share your observation, and not your interpretation

This part is true in on- and offline meetings: Whenever there’s a group, there is interaction and it’s not only verbal.
You’ll see eyebrows rise, frowns, nods, shakes and hands in the air.
But, what do they mean?

Just ask it by sharing your observation and ask for a clarification instead of interpret / judging the observation. E.g.:

“John, I see you frown. I’m curious what makes you do that.” as opposed to:
“John, I clearly see you are angry.”

The second sentence puts John in a defence mode, while the first one expresses curiosity and triggers more descriptive answers.

Also, listen for words that express feeling and ask for clarification.
“I hear you say you’re worried. Could you tell me more about it?”
“I hear you say it’s hard. What makes you say this?”

4. Never ask why? – Ask: ‘What causes this? ‘ instead

It’s tempting to ask why, because you’re interested to know why, right? Unfortunately, the word ‘why’ has a bitter taste as it is often heard as very judgemental. Changing your wording helps.

Compare these 2 sentences:
“John, why did you choose this strategy? ”
“John, what makes you choose this strategy? ”

The second one is less offensive and will trigger more descriptive, instead of defensive answers. It’s analog to sharing observations.

As a facilitator

As a facilitator you have a lot of impact on the atmosphere of a meeting. This covers a wide range of activities: from choosing the right words in your invitation, to the practical setup of the meeting. Below are some practical things you can start doing today.

1. Start at hh:05 or hh:35 (and limit meetings to 25 / 50 mins)

If you’re the organizer, you can influence this one easily by giving your colleagues some time. Time to get coffee in between meetings and thus a few moments to mentally prepare is essential for a effective meeting. So, if you’re not creating this slack time, you will make sure people come in rushed.

Tip: change your default meeting time in Outlook’s settings.

2. Check if everyone knows the other participants

You won’t connect to people you’ve never even been introduced to, it’s that simple. And collaboration without connection is not really effective. So please check if all participants know each other. Lead by example by being early, welcoming people, introducing participants that you know are not known to each other. Of course, when you meet regularly, this part of introductions will be skipped.
Also allow 5 to 10 minutes to chit-chat, like you would waiting in front of a meeting room.

3. Do a check-in (to stop participants doing other things)

People are easily distracted and online meetings have seduced more people to “be present ” AND finishing up some notes from last meeting, reply-ing their email, reading some news on their screen, chatting with some-one else. You’ve probably seen (and done) both.

Doing a checkin is easy, fun and functional: it forces people to be present in the meeting.
This huge list of checkins from Beth could be helpful, and i personally like this website because it allows me to focus on the interaction, instead of the checkin-questions myself. (I ask people to answer a question (or pass once) and pick another teammate for the next round. Effective, simple and quick)
The fact that people are all allowed to talk during a check-in, can already help, according to Kramer ea in “Het werk heeft het kantoor verlaten” (2020).

4. Set rules for the meeting together( to stop participants doing other things)

Make space to address early leaves, setting your computer and phone to non-disturbing mode and ask if participants have urgent matters to make exceptions on the non disturbing mode, discuss breaks, way of asking questions ( in the chat, out loud, afterwards, in the collaboration tool etc etc).

TIP: Ask them to self organise the rules in an online collaboration tool like Mural or Miro. It will activate people, focus people and start conversations (and makes them stop doing other things 🙂 )

5. Do all the things participants should do

It’s a no brainer: you’re the lead in the meeting, the examples you set in your behaviour and language matter and teach. But it’s hard sometimes. So don’t be too hard on yourself if you’re not up to it at all times. Just practice!

Conclusion

To be effective in a conference call, you as a facilitator or participant have to contribute to a healthy meeting-environment. You can do this by choosing your language carefully, describing behaviours, to be curious and avoid asking why. When it’s silent you know to ask the most powerful question and you know to be more vocal. If you’re the facilitator, you will do a checkin, allow for chit-chat and make sure everyone knows each other. Finally, when a group is (relatively) new, you’ll know to establish rules together.

Enjoy your next meeting! 🙂

About me

I'm currently working as an 100% Scrum Master at Van Lanschot Kempen, Amsterdam, to help the teams setting (and getting) their goals.

More about me or read my articles.