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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Related articles

More articles on Effective Meetings:

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In group problem solving, diversity of opinion and healthy, reasoned debate ensure that our conclusions take into account all the difficulties we can anticipate. Lock-step thinking — and limited debate — expose us to the risk of unanticipated risk.
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We spend a lot of time and emotional energy in meetings, much of it engaged in any of dozens of ritualized games. Here's Part I of a little catalog of some of our favorites, and what we can do about them.
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We waste a lot of time finding solutions before we understand the problem. And sometimes, we start solving before everyone is even aware of the problem. Here's how to prevent premature solution.
The "Good Work" team of Damon, Csí,kszentmihá,lyi, and GardnerCosts of the Catch-Me-Up Anti-Pattern: II
When we interrupt a meeting to recap the action so far for a late-arriving attendee, the cost of the recap itself is just the beginning. There are some less-obvious costs that can be even greater.
Three gulls excluding a fourthWorkplace Politics and Social Exclusion: I
In the workplace, social exclusion is the practice of systematically excluding someone from activities in which they would otherwise be invited to participate. When used in workplace politics, it's ruinous for the person excluded, and expensive to the organization.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Saturn during equinox — a composite of natural-color images from CassiniComing May 22: Rescheduling Collaborative Work
Rescheduling is what we do when the schedule we have now is so desperately unachievable that we must let go of it because when we look at it we can no longer decide whether to laugh or cry. The fear is that the new schedule might come to the same end. Available here and by RSS on May 22.
The Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill BridgeAnd on May 29: Rescheduling: Project Factors
Rescheduling is what we do when we can no longer honor the schedule we have now. Of all causes of rescheduling, the more controllable are those found at the project level. Attending to them in one project can limit their effects on other projects. Available here and by RSS on May 29.

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