Top Tips from Malleable Mind

5 tips from psychology for better video conferencing

23rd November 2020, 11:00 am

Remote or home working is here to stay. Connecting with each other and our teams will mean we need to use virtual tools like video conferencing as part of our day to day. So, what can we learn from psychology to help us get the best out of these virtual interactions?

Here I offer 5 simple tips that can help us get the best out of video conferencing:

1 – Pay attention

Hello, hello, hi, yes, over here…

How does it make you feel when it’s clear that someone isn’t paying attention to you?

Frustrating …right?

And our perceptual systems readily pick up on and attend to cues that give away whether someone is engaging with us or not.

Eye contact, active listening, and the ability to reflect back important contributions and points other make, through your own contributions; asking the right questions and putting your own position across are basics that we can all learn to apply. These simple approaches can really help to make meetings more productive.

And of course, that easy…isn’t it?

But hold that thought; how many of us have sat on a video conference call with someone whose attention was clearly directed elsewhere.

Picture this scene.

You begin talking and one of the other participants averts their gaze to something else. Then they begin typing. You can see their hands moving across the keyboard and you can hear the keystrokes.

But no-one could be so lacking in self-awareness to engage in that very obvious disengagement; could they?

Well, believe it or not I’ve witnessed this type behaviour a number of times on video calls. And I’m sure I’m not alone in having had this experience.

If this happens, ask yourself how does it make you feel?

Do you get the sense that that person is actually interested in what you’re saying? It’s akin to taking your mobile phone out and responding to a notification in the middle of a face to face meeting. You wouldn’t do that; would you?

So, while it seems self-evident; apply yourself to the meeting and pay attention to others on the call.

Doing so will help connectivity and productivity. Failing to do will be picked up on by razor sharp human perception and will send cues that you’re not interested.

Which brings me to

2 -Manage energy

Maintaining focus and concentration requires energy.

Let me let you into a little secret. Just like every other part of our body, our brain needs energy.

Let’s face it we’ve all experienced how much more difficult it can be to concentrate when we’re tired. Studies show how tiredness and the associated low energy levels can negatively impact key higher cognitive processes like memory and problem solving.

So, it stands to reason that we should look after our energy levels so that we can be as involved, flexible and productive as possible.

But there’s something else more subtle to consider here too.

Our cognitive (thinking) systems have various limitations, and if we place too much load on them, then we can impact optimal functioning.

The theory of cognitive load was formulated by Australian psychologist John Sweller in the 80s in relation to problem solving capabilities and instructional design, but we could learn from this to help our meetings too.

Given that we’re not physically in the room with each other but rather we’re trying to engage with tiles on a screen, we can already understand that this could take more effort and attention.

What’s called extraneous load – or the complexity in the way information is presented, comes into play here Face to face meetings provide us with rich nonverbal feedback that our brains readily and rapidly process. This helps us navigate any challenge, potential defensiveness or pick up when someone is really engaging with our topic of discussion. Given that much of this information may be hidden from view  due to the limitations of reading others through a small tile on a screen, we can extrapolate that our brains could have to work harder to decipher what’s going on in our virtual room.

This missing interpersonal information means that video conferencing could be placing extra extraneous cognitive load on our thinking system.

Any wonder then why we could feel completely exhausted by having 4 or 5 back to back zoom or teams calls?

So, the next tip is to plan how many meetings you actually need in anyone’s diary on a given day. My guess is you want to maintain the highest level of focus and attention; flexible thinking and problem solving; so it’s a no brainer – actually it’s more like a brainer (bad psych joke) to ensure we’re not just having meetings for the sake of having meetings but rather that they serve specific and defined purposes.

And linked to this the next tip:

3 – Consider complexity

Sticking with the idea of limitations and load in our thinking systems, let’s consider how much complexity and uniqueness we drop into each virtual meeting.

Going back to cognitive load theory, the concept of intrinsic load covers how much we can be additionally mentally taxed by being presented with information which is complex in nature.

Think about solving a simple addition in maths versus a complex differential or quadratic equation. Even those terms could have our brains shuddering at the thought.

So, if our brains are already working harder with focus, concentration, and the slightly unusual nature of video conferencing it is worth considering how much additional load we’re placing on the brains and minds in the virtual room.

This doesn’t mean we need to dumb our meetings down, but rather it’s more about planning and structure, to ensure we consider all the moving parts; energy, attention and complexity to ensure we’re getting the optimum out of ourselves and everyone else. So instead of cramming a number of different complex concepts and problems into one meeting, it might be worth having a couple of shorter more focused meetings planned in at different times, with adequate breaks in between.

Which brings up tip number:

4 – Provide structure

Have you ever left a meeting room and thought, ‘What was the point of that?

It sounds patently obvious, but providing structure, outlining, and setting expectations and then actually meeting that outline can make meetings more productive.

It’s not just setting day, date and time, but if we start by considering what we you want to achieve, then we can  ensure people are briefed on the purpose and content of any meeting, so that they can be as prepared as possible.

This is even more important when we’re talking about the world of video conferencing, where we’ve already seen that additional demands are being placed our thinking systems.

Also, in a world where we’re working from home and remote from each other, the disruption to our normal routines can actually be a source of elevated stress.

So, by thinking about and providing structure in our video conferences we can help with a little bit of established and expected routine.

This doesn’t mean that video conferencing needs to be inflexible or robotic, quite the opposite. In fact, part of our structure can, and I would suggest should, be about how we involve everyone and create environments where everyone can meet some core internal behavioural drivers (some of which may be deeper unconscious drivers like acceptance by others). – but exploration of these is a topic for another blog, or perhaps for a conversation with me.

Bringing in important skills like questioning technique and flexible leadership approaches can also help us to guide video conferencing structure in a flexible and productive direction.

And this brings me to my final tip:

5 – Build in some pastoral and self-care

We all have needs and drivers. Some of these are physical like food, but many are psychological.

In the current environment of remote / home working and virtual interaction via video conferencing real challenges have emerged for us and those around us in meeting many of these core psychological needs.

I mentioned above the human driver for acceptance by others. The reality is feeling rejected or not accepted can be incredibly uncomfortable and indeed painful, escalating our stress responses and potentially feeding unhelpful internal conversations of self-doubt or self-criticism.

So, in the world of video conferencing and remote working remember to make time for the personal touch, to connect with each other and to involve a little bit of pastoral care for others and self-care for yourself.

To maximise this, it’s worthwhile understanding the particular needs that those around us might have and then providing the environments to do this. This could be a challenge if we’re not sure how to either drill into these topics or how to create settings to meet more individual needs at a time like this. But that’s where dropping Malleable Mind a message to have a chat can help out.

And don’t forget to spend some time understanding what it is you need too. Meeting our own needs and drivers is as important as maintaining our physical energy levels.

So, in closing:

1 -Pay attention

2- Manage energy

3 – Consider complexity

4 – Provide structure

5 – Build in some pastoral and self-care

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