run virtual meetings

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Two weeks ago a partnership I work with faced a complex task. It involved delicate decision-making and they had to tackle it in a virtual meeting. Nearly all fourteen participants prepped in advance. But until they had heard from one another on the call, any decision would be premature.

In the end, the group got the job done and all that remained was fine-tuning the details. It was seamless. People signed off feeling accomplished. Much the way a hummingbird flutters up to a blossom, hovers in front of it and extracts nectar, the partners operated with a degree of rigor and precision that got the job done, with a degree of elegance.

However, given the complexity of the task, the meeting could have gone a completely different way. What kept it focused and buoyant, moving at a steady clip with ample room for candid sharing and discussion?

It was virtual. And we took advantage of virtual’s hidden advantages.

Virtual meetings are not regular meetings with a tech touch

Now that the professional multitudes touch down daily in one virtual meeting after another, it’s time to get real. Virtual meetings aren’t just a tech version of in-person meetings. That would be like like saying rockets are just another form of air travel. For certain tasks (though not all), virtual meetings have far more advanced functionality. And I’m not talking about bells and whistles like side chats, voting, applauding, waiting rooms or security controls. I’m talking about what you, as a participant, have access to in a virtual meeting that’s more evasive when you’re in direct contact.

Sound crazy? Hear me out.

In virtual meeting rooms, everyone has readier access to flows of intelligence that are beyond what your mind alone can conjure. Anyone can tap into it. Many of you already do and you’re not aware you’re doing it. If you think I’m referring to angels or channeling, I’m not. This isn’t about spirituality. It’s nuts and bolts. Anyone can learn the mechanics. And as I said, some of you already know how.

What years of practice taught me

In 2008 I began weekly Skype meetings. For two hours every Monday night I was with people from across the US and Canada. In total I’ve logged over 1,500 hours of virtual meetings.

The capacity of the people I met with grew with time. We all got pretty good at dialing into flows beyond the limitation of our minds. A couple of us are strategy consultants with an eye to group dynamics, so it’s been an amazing learning lab. Here’s what those twelve years taught me:

  • You don’t just enter a virtual meeting room; you enter a realm.
  • The first two minutes anchor the tone and trajectory for the whole call. You can recover from a weak start, but you’ll never reach the elevation that was possible from a strong start.
  • When things go well, ideas start to stack up on each other. You can feel a scaffolding effect. It has a certain integrity and feels structurally sound, not flimsy.
  • The enemy is anything and everything that causes leakage. Distractions, tangents, aimless wandering. And of course, dominance and wishy-washiness. All of these can crash a meeting. No one can be a passive passenger — everyone needs to sustain the alertness of a pilot.

Let’s break down what’s really going on, and what you can do to level up. I’ll be focusing on meetings with a business or organizational purpose such as strategy development, design thinking and continuous improvement. Meetings meant to foster a social or familial connection, or that are explicitly about personnel matters, can still apply the same principles, but in these instances it may be that more is lost than is gained by meeting remotely.

What’s really happening in these virtual meeting rooms

We’ve been taught to look for body language — people leaning in, leaning back, folding arms, making side glances. If you pay attention with your physical eyes during an in-person meeting, you’ll catch cues.

These are harder to track on screen in a virtual meeting. And they’re actually not as important as another facet of what’s going on.

Imagine a superhighway running through your meeting. Actually, it’s above your meeting in a non-dimensional sort of way. Its a rapid current of ideas, possibilities. It has movement, like a stream or a flow. The speed varies. In meetings that go well it’s lightning fast; in others it plods as though congested.

The ideas aren’t necessarily yours. But you are accessing them. I suppose one could say that as you catch them, they become yours. Or at least you’re the person who gives voice to them.

In virtual meetings, they are easier to tap into than in physical meetings. It’s as if there are fewer buffers between you and them. The experience of catching them isn’t like being hit with a ton of bricks. It’s more an experience of, “Oh, what if we …” and the idea unfurls as you’re speaking. So, more of a eureka than a thud. There’s a quality of lightness, relative weightlessness. And it brings with it an enthusiasm, like the joy of catching a feather in the air when it’s falling from the sky.

Since this superhighway of ideas and possibilities runs above the virtual meeting room, anyone can tap into it. Anyone, that is, who knows how. It’s a Lamborgini waiting to be driven.

It starts with noticing

How do you gain this skill? The first step is simple. Start noticing the effect that specific utterances have on the meeting you’re in. Pay less attention to the person, more to the words themselves. Picture what the person is saying. Literally, make a mini-movie in your head. Do it frame by frame using only the words they say. Add nothing. Just work with what they give you. Can you do it?

Next, start noticing what happens in the discussion room. What effect does the speaker’s words and delivery have on the other participants, e.g.,

  • Do people sit up and pay more attention, so additional ideas build on each other and advance more quickly?
  • Does the room go flat, as if someone sucked all the air out?
  • Is the vibe duller or sharper, more electric or more watery?

Listen even more closely and you’ll notice that what people ask and how they ask it can influence the receptivity of the others, and therefore the way they apply energy or effort to their answers. Sometimes a well-timed question flips a switch and suddenly the group catches a wave of new possibilities. For example,

  • Does someone’s innate curiosity propel the whole group forward in leaps and bounds rather than incrementally?
  • By contrast, are people’s questions simply veiled power grabs or not-so-hidden agendas?
  • Do the questions have an opening, clarifying or unifying effect, or do they feel stale and stultifying?

Often, a bigger perspective comes into view mid-way through a virtual meeting. The elements begin to take the shape of a cohesive whole. It may take a while to fully form. Keep an eye out for this, e.g.,

  • Is the recap more than a recap? More than a list of assignments?
  • Does it feel like everyone, though in different physical rooms, is now looking at the same picture of something, together?
  • Does the gestalt of the meeting maintain it’s stickiness, such that most anyone who attended could summarize it long after it was over?

Observing is learning. It’s also fun — a perfect antidote to routine. The key is noticing distinctions. That includes noticing who does it well, and who doesn’t. What are they doing? What are they dialed into? If they can tap it, so can you.

Surf the currents

This last step is harder. Don’t stop formulating pictures. But as you do, see if you can listen above the words. You might gain new awareness of the depth of what’s being said. It could be profound — in the direction of universal underlying forms, akin to Carl Jung’s archetypes.

While the speaker uses words, you hear them, you picture, and you open your awareness to allow even more to come into view. Don’t force anything. It’s an actively passive exercise. In other words, you’re receptive. All you want to do is to see what’s there. Never grasp to find it and definitely do not make things up.

This is how you begin to dial in to the currents, the streams, the flows of thought that are impersonal. They existed before the virtual meeting began. You’re leveraging unique qualities of the technology built into virtual meeting platforms to attune to it.

People with natural talent as strategists are quite skilled at this. They aren’t mired in limitations of what exists only in the here and now. They catch upstream ideas and recognize those that fit with an organization’s aspiration and it’s ability. “If we go in this direction, there’s a very good chance we’ll achieve that.”

A brief warning, though. You can’t just leap to this step. If you aren’t observing, listening and picturing all along the way, you’ll find yourself far afield.

Think of it this way. You catch a hint of a something, a vague idea. You got the glimpse – check! Your job now is to gently expand your awareness so you can unpack it. To do this, you need to stay loosely tethered to it. Hold it too tight and you’ll constrict. That limits what you can see.

You’ll know you missed the mark if you find yourself floating away in your own daydreams. (If you notice someone else doing that, also notice how far into nowhere it can take the whole group if they blindly follow.) Dreaming that leads somewhere is dialed into something tangible.

A light touch

And one parting tip. Be playful. No one can project manage their way onto the superastral highway. If you’re too direct, you’ll miss it. Make it a light touch. Being a bit peripheral helps put you in touch with the sensation, to feel the feeling of tapping into it. Once you get the hang of it, you may never want to go back to old fashioned meeting rooms.

This article originally appeared in LinkedIn on June 11, 2020.