Last week, I presented some best practices for facilitating a successful virtual meeting: checking your technology, creating a professional background, having resources available, using engaging tools and structures, and determining next steps and making sure to follow through. Likewise, participants can contribute to successful meetings by using best practices of their own. Most importantly, the length and quality of attention a person brings to a task is entirely dependent on the task and what the individual brings to the situation. A lot of sources talk about how our attention span is decreasing as our use of technology, social media, and the internet increases. A BBC article I find very interesting debunks that notion, digging into the source of the research that stated our attention spans are shorter than that of goldfish now and finding very little to back it up. The author also talks to Dr. Gemma Briggs, a lecturer in psychology at the Open University in the U.K. She says that the amount of attention we have “will vary depending on what the demand of the task is” and that “how we apply our attention to different tasks depends very much about what the individual brings to that situation” (Busting the attention span myth, BBC, March 2017). This means that the intention and commitment we bring to a task, such as a virtual meeting where we may not even be seen or heard, greatly influences our attention span and, therefore, the amount of information we gain. While facilitators can focus on providing high-quality information using engaging meeting structures, participants can focus on paying close attention and getting the most out of the information presented. The big question is how to do that. With phones and internet readily available, what can participants do to show their commitment and keep themselves accountable to what’s happening? Below are 4 tips for being an engaged user of any virtual meeting platform, whether one-on-one or in a group.
“How we apply our attention to different tasks depends very much about what the individual brings to that situation.”
Confirm Ahead That You Know Where You’re Going and Arrive a Few Minutes Early
The feeling of scrambling to find the link to the meeting, logging in, any technology issues right when the meeting is starting isn’t fun (I’ve been there!). Check the link ahead of time to make sure you know where you’re going and have any needed programs already downloaded. Log in a few minutes early and send an IM chat to anyone else who’s there or a general hello to the group to see as they arrive. You’ll feel ore connected to the other participants and start with a sense of calm and focus.
Be an Active Participant
You can be an active participant in a whole host of ways. I’ve been attending some free workshops online recently, and the facilitators often ask for input or feedback by asking us to “raise our hands.” When the answer does apply to me, I raise my hand. I could sit back and not push the button, but that would mean both not being an active participant and not providing the facilitator with the feedback he or she needs. When the answer does not apply to me and keeping my hand down is appropriate, I ask questions. This lets the facilitator know what additional information or input I need to move on. Another great way to actively participant is to be the scribe or note-taker. I often volunteer for this job because it keeps me listening closely (I would feel awful if I neglected to record someone’s idea) and helps me process what I’m hearing. Putting your phone in another room when appropriate or turning off your wifi are other ways to tune out the rest of the world and focus on what’s in front of you.
Hear What Isn’t Said Aloud
Meetings involve a lot of talking and, for the participant, a lot of listening. Underneath the conversation, though, is a range of things not said. Cue in to tone of voice, other participants’ questions, background or history of the topic, the heart or why of the topic, and the various levels of impact from the information you’re receiving. Analyzing the information from multiple perspectives and “hearing” how other people feel, as well as monitoring your own reaction, helps develop your analytical and emotional intelligence skills. It also provides more information than just what’s on the surface and gives you an opportunity to reflect; even if the topic is straightforward, your reaction gives you insight to how you best learn and what is important to you.
If the topic requires next steps, make sure you understand your roles and responsibilities and that you follow through with whatever falls in your purview. As a student, you may have research or tasks to complete. As a colleague, you may have resources or programs to design. Many meetings hit a dead-end because they don’t establish what happens next. If next steps haven’t been established, go ahead and ask, even if the answer is that there aren’t any. Next steps are the takeaways of the meeting and keep momentum going. The world outside of meetings is tempting and we all drift now and then. What we bring to the task makes a huge difference and is one we can control. By setting patterns of intention and engagement, we can be productive participants and walk away with much more than we would otherwise. Poignantly, goldfish are actually model research subjects for learning and memory. They’ve been studied for over a hundred years simply because they can form memories and can learn! Since we can do the same, we should be seeking out their attention spans anyway.