Removing the Blindfold in Teleconferencing

Published on 2014-05-29

Blindfolded Man
THE FREQUENCY OF FACE-TO-FACE MEETINGS is diminishing quickly. This is the result of two convergent events: advances in the quality and ease of teleconferencing, and the globalisation of companies’ supply chains. Just about every multinational office in China now boasts a black Polycom triangular ‘SoundStation’ in their conference rooms and many of the tech-savvy amongst us are also using Skype to talk via their computers.
There are no qualms with the quality of the latest communication technology. Surely, therefore, this means that organisations across the world are enjoying clear and productive teleconferences. Sadly, this is not always the case, as globalisation throws up new challenges along with every innovation it creates. Today, teleconferencing communicators are often non-native English speakers. For example, I have spoken to many Chinese employees in multinational organisations who need to communicate with professionals in other non-native English speaking countries, such as India.
[quote style=”boxed” float=”right”]Research carried out by Nemertes suggests that 90% of the world’s employees do not work in their firm’s HQ.[/quote]
Globalisation means that a simple teleconference meeting might involve Customer Support personnel in New Delhi, Operations supervisors in Suzhou, Finance managers in Hong Kong, and HR professionals in Germany. Research carried out by Nemertes suggests that 90% of the world’s employees do not work in their firm’s HQ. This means we can forget about the idea of communicating in ‘standard English’.
How important is body language?
If our Chinese, Indian, and European colleagues come together for a face-to-face meeting they will be speaking English, but they will also rely heavily on body language. This presents our second major obstacle – teleconferencing eliminates body language. In the 1960s, Dr Albert Mehrabian and his colleagues sought to understand the relative impact of facial expressions versus spoken words. One of the studies they devised involved subjects listening to a recording of a female saying the single word “maybe” in three different tones of voice to convey ‘liking’, ‘neutrality’, and ‘disliking’. The subjects in the study then saw photos of female faces with the same three emotions and were asked to guess the emotions in the recorded voices, the photos, and both in combination. Not surprisingly, the photos got more accurate responses than the voices, by a ratio of 3:2. .Their second study involved subjects listening to nine recorded words: three conveying liking (‘honey,’ ‘dear,’ and ‘thanks’), three conveying neutrality (‘maybe,’ ‘really,’ and ‘oh’), and three conveying disliking (‘don’t,’ ‘brute,’ and ‘terrible’). The speaker used different tones and subjects then guessed the emotions behind the words spoken. These experiments found that tones carried more meaning than the individual words themselves. The results found that:

    • 7% of meaning comes from spoken words,
    • 38% of meaning comes from vocal tones, and
    • 55% of meaning comes via general body language.

These figures are startling, but they do not really tell the whole story. For instance, they do not allow for the varying content of the words themselves. Some news will be exciting or shocking, regardless of the way in which it arrives. However, these results confirm that we do not form understanding simply through the words we use alone. They prove that a combination of non-verbal cues, particularly facial expressions, help us arrive at a clearer picture and understanding. Consequently, the likelihood of misunderstandings occurring during a teleconference is far greater than if the participants were physically sitting across from each other at the same table.
Another issue, aside from differing accents and the absence of body language, is the tendency of some cultures to be either dominant or timid during meetings. One American manager confessed to me that during face-to-face meetings, his local Chinese staff would rarely introduce objections or new ideas. [quote style=”boxed” float=”left”]However, when he adjourned the meeting and the participants were filing out, one or two of his Chinese colleagues would approach him to voice their opinions.[/quote]However, when he adjourned the meeting and the participants were filing out, one or two of his Chinese colleagues would approach him to voice their opinions. This approach made no sense to the manager and further increased his frustration, as he was used to a very vocal team in his home country. This sort of cultural timidity places teleconferencing out of the picture. While the improvements in telecommunications ensure that the voice of participants is crystal clear, there are still a number of hurdles preventing most companies from being both efficient and effective in their teleconference meetings.
So what can be done? 
Standardising teleconferencing meetings and providing support to participants to ensure both confidence and contribution is one solution. ClarkMorgan developed the ‘virtual boardroom table’,  a simple solution, comprising of an A4 page with a large rectangle representing the boardroom. This ‘boardroom’ is then flanked by 12 circles, six on top, six on the bottom, representing the empty seats. Using this sheet to improve your teleconferences is simple. Divide the table with a line or many lines, to delineate the meeting’s locations. For example, after cutting the table into three parts, write in ‘Beijing’, ‘Mumbai’ and ‘Frankfurt’ in each section. As each participant connects to the teleconference, thicken the edge of a circle in that participant’s designated area to denote that their virtual seat is taken, and write their name above the circle. The unmarked circles indicate that those chairs are empty. Each time one of the participant speaks, colour in a small slice of the speaker’s circle. This gives you an idea of who is contributing, and who isn’t.
During the meeting, the chair person can call upon participants whose circles are still relatively empty and control members who are talking too much. All participants are also aware of their own performance, which leads to self-management and motivation. Therefore, you can make decisions that reflect the group consensus, rather than the opinions of one or two dominating voices. This is one of many tools that we use for training, and ultimately our performance improves greatly. The last consideration is to have patience and to encourage patience in others. After all, technology can only improve communication so far. It’s up to the two sides – speaker and listener – to develop their skills, and that simply takes time and perhaps some meeting skills training!