A bad habit has formed in virtual meetings - chatting.
At its best, it allows for someone to weigh in on a conversation who wouldn’t normally. They pop their idea in the chat to safely share their voice and colleagues’ express appreciation for them.
Someone might also think that by using chat they are not interrupting the current speaker – but they likely are. Pop-ups and notifications while you are speaking or presenting can be a distraction, especially if it’s a question, something off topic, a different conversation, or… something worse.
Because at its worst, it looks like this: A senior leader is discussing the budget on a Zoom call and the chat fills up with comments like, “I bet this is corporate’s way of getting rid of us.” And “This is ridiculous. I can’t believe we have to listen to this.” Others responded with “LOL” or emojis. The leader couldn’t track both the live questions and the ones coming through the chat. The person responsible for monitoring said they didn’t feel comfortable reading the questions and comments out loud.
This is a true story. Here is what this leader said:
If we had been in person, this never would have happened. Now that people are virtual, they use chatting to say things I know they would never say to me or their colleagues directly. They would still ask tough questions, but they would voice it differently. Now that it’s in writing in a chat, people behave differently.
This might be an extreme example.
What happens most frequently is that a virtual meeting gets started just fine. Then a benign comment is mentioned in the chat, but someone responds to it which sparks dialogue. If something controversial comes up, not only are people chatting, but then they Slack/instant message each other or text. Very few are paying attention to the meeting speaker so when the speaker asks if anyone has questions, there’s silence. Not because there are no questions, but because the audience wasn’t paying attention to the meeting.
Side conversations in virtual meetings have become the runaway train of teamwork.
If leader’s and teams want to have productive meetings, clear conversations, and concise decision-making then chatting must stop. At minimum, ground rules (or guardrails?) be put in place to minimize it.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, here are five tips to reign in this bad habit.
Use Different Discussion Methods
It’s well known that when people don’t speak up in a group, there is likely a low level of psychological safety (SkillPath). This is the sense of confidence a person won’t be punished or embarrassed by the team (or the leader) for sharing their opinion, concern, or idea. Leaders and teams may use chat to overcome this. It feels safer because there is a barrier (the screen) between the group and the individual.
The problem is that by asking people to speak up and discuss using chat, you end up encouraging the behavior you want to minimize, distractions in chat.
Rather than using chat to overcome low levels of psychological safety, use other discussion methods like:
Small Group Discussion: People are more likely to speak up in smaller groups. If you have a meeting with more than 7-8 people, split people into pairs or small groups for discussion.
Polling: A poll can yield high quality, group feedback quickly. Prepare standard polls to be accessed quickly like
Virtual Hand-raising: Some use chat because they can’t get a word in over those who capitalize conversation. Use virtual hand-raising for a more equitable discussion experience.
Read this if you need more ideas on how to foster discussion during meetings: Meeting Series Part 2: Meaningful Middles.
Call It Out
If after using different methods hasn’t reigned in the train, then call out the problem. No need to scold, shame, or say things like “People are being disrespectful by chatting during meetings.” Just address your own experience with it like,
“Hey folks, I’m having a hard time keeping track of the live conversations and those in chat. If we were face-to-face, none of us would be chatting or texting, right? So, why are we doing it now? Does anyone else find it distracting?”
That’s it. Just raise the issue. Others are likely to agree. Then ask for ideas to overcome it. It will probably look like some form of ground rules, which is next.
Chatting Done Right: Pilot Ground Rules
You may thinking, “but I’ve been on calls where the chat functionality was very helpful! – we shared links to view shared documents together, asked questions, and even gave appreciation to the current speaker with encouraging words and emojis”. Yes! This is because your team had established ground rules, or at least some kind of shared understanding about how to use chat.
Some ground rules are better than others. Teams must find the right ones that work for them. Try one out for a week and then discuss the effectiveness together. Here are a few:
Only use chat for affirmations and appreciation This means to use chat for “I agree!” or “Great point.” Then, ask everyone to talk through discussion and debate.
Use dedicated time for chat. This means to pause for 5 minutes a couple times during the meeting to open it up for discussion and allow folks to use chat then. This still encourages chatting for discussion but at least it’s controlled. This also has that added benefit of giving people a chance to process, and gives others who might not usually speak up a chance to join the discussion.
Maintain one topic of discussion at a time. This can help keep everyone focused on the same stream of thought, but still say “This means to refrain from using chat for discussion.”
Commit to the Ground Rules
The only way ground rules are effective is if participants follow them. Folks are more likely to do this if the group is explicit about committing to them. Try saying:
Before we start the meeting, let’s all commit to follow the new chat ground rule. Raise your hand if you commit to following the ground rule.
Be playful and light with it knowing that people are more likely to follow the ground rule after openly committing to it. This technique works for all meeting ground rules, not just those for chat.
This is extreme and one I only recommend if the group agrees to try it in advance. Don’t, out of the blue, disable chat. People will feel stifled and shutdown. Rather, offer this as something to try for two or three meetings and then use a poll to gather feedback on whether it works.
Chatting is a habit. It reminds me of when I had a candy dish on my desk for colleagues. Yet, I was the one eating the candy. It was hard to stop with that candy dish on my desk. The only way was to remove the dish. Chatting is similar, just be sure to use other discussion methods if you decide to remove it.
This new bad habit of chatting doesn’t have to derail your teamwork. Try out the tips to establish new habits. Likely, the whole team will appreciate it.
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Until next time!
Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training and coaching.
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