Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 13, Issue 31;   July 31, 2013: Virtual Meetings: Indicators of Inattention

Virtual Meetings: Indicators of Inattention

by

If you've ever led a virtual meeting, you're probably familiar with the feeling that some attendees are doing something else. Here are some indicators of inattention.
Word salad with font dressing

Word salad with font dressing. The origin of the term word salad is likely the description of the behavior of some who suffer from schizophrenia. Some schizophrenic patients are known at times to use words in any combination, violating syntax, and producing unintelligible word strings. The condition is known as schizophasia.

The term word salad, despite its origins, is now also used to describe swatches of nearly-unintelligible speech or writing that makes heavy use of jargon and obscure, near-meaningless metaphors. Used in this way, the term word salad is disapproving and critical, even scornful.

You're leading a virtual meeting, and you have a nagging feeling that some people aren't paying attention. Let's get real: you're absolutely certain that some people aren't paying attention. You even have some good guesses about who is and who isn't. Here's the really scary part — some of the people who you believe are paying attention actually aren't.

Virtual meetings are complicated. A telephone meeting is different from a videoconference, even though both are virtual. For concreteness, let's say that many of the attendees are connected to the meeting by telephone.

As a meeting lead, knowing who isn't fully attentive is valuable information, because it's important to know when corrective action is required. Relying on a sixth sense isn't good enough. Here are some indicators of inattentiveness.

Uncharacteristic reticence
Absence of comments from people who typically do comment on the topic at hand can indicate inattentiveness. To check this, ask directly, "Scott, what do you think about this?"
Delayed responses
When an attendee is addressed directly, by the meeting lead or by another attendee, a delay before response can indicate inattentiveness. Some people can mentally replay the last few seconds of conversation, and the delay is just the time this takes. Track these delays to detect the pattern.
Introductory word salad
When an attendee is addressed directly, a response consisting of "word salad" for the first few seconds can suggest disorientation. People who use this technique can be tripped up by a simple "Excuse me, what does that mean?" during the salad course.
Key clicking
Because typing can be meeting-related, the meaning of key clicking is ambiguous. If the typist is not known to take notes, inattentiveness is a possible explanation.
Food wrapper crinkling
Unwrapping food Ambient sounds can suggest
attentiveness challenges —
babies crying, dinnerware
clatter, and transportation
sounds are all signs
of trouble
can be a noisy operation that can indicate inattentiveness. Eating and attentiveness to the proceedings are not compatible.
Key phrases
Key phrases that could indicate inattentiveness:
  • "Would you please repeat that?"
  • "Sorry, I had it muted."
  • "I'm not sure exactly what you mean. Say more."
  • "Pardon me, I just stepped away. What did I miss?"
Ambient sounds
Ambient sounds can suggest attentiveness challenges. Examples: babies crying, dinnerware clatter, other conversations, and transportation sounds (airport, rail, auto, bus). Ambient sounds can indicate that attendees couldn't control their whereabouts at the time of the meeting, or that they planned attendance during a commute or other activity. Investigation is essential.
Biological sounds
The sound of a finishing swallow, mastication, and other activities we cannot mention here indicate problematic behavior. Address the issue privately.

For many connection types, you can't determine the identity of the source. But some connections offer selective muting of individual attendees. If you have that capability, you can flash-mute an individual to determine the sound source. But ask someone else to do it. You don't want to be inattentive yourself. Go to top Top  Next issue: Virtual Meetings: Dealing with Inattention  Next Issue

101 Tips for Effective MeetingsDo you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!

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More articles on Effective Meetings:

Two different chairsTake Any Seat: I
When you attend a meeting, how do you choose your seat? Whether you chair or not, where you sit helps to determine your effectiveness and your stature during the meeting. Here are some tips for choosing your seat strategically.
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We spend a sizable chunk of time correcting each other. Some believe that we win points by being right, or lose points by being wrong, but nobody seems to know who keeps the official score. Here are some thoughts to help you kick the habit.
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We say that a sidebar is underway in a meeting when two or more meeting participants converse without having been recognized by the Chair. Sidebars can be helpful, but they can also be disruptive. How can we end sidebars quickly and politely?
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Here's Part II of a set of simple techniques to help virtual meeting facilitators enhance attendee engagement.
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Meeting leads, meeting Chairs, and facilitators must be prepared to deal with meeting hijackers. Hesitation, or any ineffectual action, enhances the hijacker's chances of success. Here are suggestions for preventing hijacking.

See also Effective Meetings and Effective Communication at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

C. Northcote Parkinson in 1961Coming September 27: Meeting Troubles: Collaboration
In some meetings, we collaborate not in reaching objectives, but in preventing our doing so. Here are three examples of this pattern. Available here and by RSS on September 27.
A typical standup meetingAnd on October 4: Meeting Troubles: Culture
Sometimes meetings are less effective than they might be because of cultural factors that are outside our awareness. Here are some examples. Available here and by RSS on October 4.

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