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.
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,
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 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."
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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.
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