Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 8, Issue 14;   April 2, 2008: Remote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts: II

Remote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts: II

by

Facilitators of synchronous distributed meetings — meetings that occur in real time, via telephone or video — encounter problems that facilitators of face-to-face meetings do not. Here's Part II of a little catalog of those problems, and some suggestions for addressing them.

Telephone and videoconferences are the next best thing to being there. Unfortunately second place is pretty far back in that race. For routine meetings about routine topics, and for highly functional teams, even though distributed meetings are a bit cumbersome, their pace is tolerable.

Mess line, noon, Manzanar Relocation Center, California, 1943

Mess line, noon, Manzanar Relocation Center, California, 1943. Social behavior in queues varies with culture. Although the concept of a "speaker queue" might work well in some monocultural meetings, it might not work the same way in another culture. In virtual teams that span multiple cultures, it's reasonable to expect that meeting participants bring with them different ideas about how the "speaker queue" will work. Ideas about priority, the connection between priority and social rank, and the relevance and sequencing of contributions can create problems for queue managers, especially when the pressure mounts. If you expect to be facilitating a multicultural virtual team, then as part of the team kickoff meeting package, and the ongoing orientation program for new team members, it might be wise to include some description of your speaker queue management practices. Photo by Ansel Adams, courtesy U.S. Library of Congress.

But for highly charged discussions, or for teams caught in toxic conflict, or when the pressure rises, the limitations of distributed meetings become clear. Facilitators skilled in dealing with these limitations can work around them, but the workarounds require methods that would seem awkward in the face-to-face (F2F) context. Here are some examples.

Collision avoidance and resolution
In face-to-face meetings a "collision" is two or more people attempting to speak at once. Most facilitators manage this problem well by asserting and maintaining control of the recognition process, using the tools of personal presence. In virtual or distributed meetings, most of those tools are limited, work differently, or are unavailable.
As facilitator, explain at the outset that you'll recognize speakers in turn. In videoconferences, hand signals might suffice for speakers seeking recognition, and signals can be given at any time. In telephone conferences, once open discussion begins, the audible request is the only means available. Since such requests might interrupt the speaker, open the floor for requests for time only during a "time-request window" between speakers. Use a brief protocol for requesting the floor — something like "Rick wants time." You'll also want a protocol for withdrawing a request — something like "Rick says 'Never mind.'" Describe also a high priority interrupt protocol to be used only by those who have critical information that will shorten the discussion — something like "Rick has a point of information."
Queue management
In virtual or distributed meetings,
most of the facilitator's
customary tools are limited,
work differently,
or are unavailable
In both distributed and F2F meetings, a queue can develop in open discussion, as people request time. In F2F meetings some facilitators maintain the queue on a flip chart or whiteboard that all can see. That might also work well in videoconferences or in distributed meetings with shared writing space.
In audio-only distributed meetings, repeat the queue aloud at the end of each time-request window.
Recognition
Recognition is the process by which the facilitator designates the next speaker. In F2F meetings a nod or a smile suffices, with an optional accompanying verbal cue, such as the speaker's name.
In the distributed context, the verbal cue is required. For safety, repeat it. When two people have identical or similar names, try to remove the ambiguity — perhaps referring to their sites or roles. Avoid disambiguating by means of personal attributes — even positive attributes — because of the risk of offense to the other person of the same name. Bad example: "Next: the smart Rick."

Next in our queue: identifying who's speaking, managing complex technologies, and handling interruptions. First in this series  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Remote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts: III  Next Issue

303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsIs your organization a participant in one or more global teams? Are you the owner/sponsor of a global team? Are you managing a global team? Is everything going well, or at least as well as any project goes? Probably not. Many of the troubles people encounter are traceable to the obstacles global teams face when building working professional relationships from afar. Read 303 Tips for Virtual and Global Teams to learn how to make your global and distributed teams sing. Order Now!

For an examination of some issues that arise in synchronous distributed meetings, see "Remote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts: I," Point Lookout for March 26, 2008. For suggestions for making remote facilitation easier using protocols defined for everyone in advance, see "Remote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts: III," Point Lookout for April 9, 2008.

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrensDaBMTItJCwaKsgNner@ChacCrQTBGMzBwhIqYTXoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

Approaching the Emerald City from the Yellow Brick RoadLet's Revise Our Rituals
Throughout the workday, we interact with each other on many levels. Some exchanges are so common and ritualized that we're no longer aware of them. If we revise these rituals slightly, we can add some zing to our lives.
Flourless chocolate cakeTwenty-Three Thoughts
Sometimes we get so focused on the immediate problem that we lose sight of the larger questions. Here are twenty-three thoughts to help you focus on what really counts.
Bull moose sparring in Grand Teton National ParkContextual Causes of Conflict: I
When destructive conflict erupts, we usually hold responsible only the people directly involved. But the choices of others, and general circumstances, can be the real causes of destructive conflict.
Conferees attending the NATO Lessons Learned Conferencde 2015How to Find Lessons to Learn
When we conduct Lessons Learned sessions, how can we ensure that we find all the important lessons to be learned? Here's one method.
Virginia SatirCongruent Decision Making: I
Decision makers who rely on incomplete or biased information are more likely to make faulty decisions. Congruent decision making can limit the incidence of bad decisions.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness, Effective Meetings, Project Management and Virtual and Global Teams for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A hummingbird feeding on the nectar of a flowerComing October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
An owl of undetermined speciesAnd on October 19: Bullying by Proxy: I
The form of workplace bullying perhaps most often observed involves a bully and a target. Other forms are less obvious. One of these, bullying by proxy, is especially difficult to control, because it so easily evades most anti-bullying policies. Available here and by RSS on October 19.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrensDaBMTItJCwaKsgNner@ChacCrQTBGMzBwhIqYTXoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.