Telephonitis

Twice in the last week I’ve been on important conference calls where severe “telephonitis” set in.  “Telephonitis” is the process whereby otherwise conversant, engaged, active people become silent in the face of a group conference call.

Maybe someday videoconferencing will become the norm, but I think phone calls are here to stay – at least for the next few decades.

You probably conduct enough business with meetings by phone that this is worth correcting.  Here’s where you can start:

  1. Create an “in the room” role.  You assign someone (or have them spontaneously volunteer) to be the voice of the sentiment “in the room,” explaining to people on the phone what’s going on.  This person fills in the silences with comments like, “Yes, everyone agrees,” or “Angela, you look like you’re not convinced by that last remark, can you tell us what’s on your mind?”
  2. When silence starts to set in, start cold calling people.  This has two effects: making sure you’re hearing from people, and creating an incentive (for those who don’t like being called on) for people to speak up when they have something to say.
  3. Create a norm that when an important question comes up, you’ll go around the horn and ask everyone to say something
  4. Have people who are not “in the room” lead the call.  Keeps them engaged and validates that just because they’re on the phone doesn’t mean they are less important.
  5. Never equate silence with agreement. It’s bad enough to do this in person.  Worse still on the phone.
  6. Keep calls short.  More than 30 minutes on the phone and you’ve probably lost the person dialing in.
  7. Keep groups small.  Less than 4 is ideal, but 6 or fewer seems to work.  After that, see above.

It’s almost impossible to overestimate how hard it is for someone on the phone to stay engaged in a conversation without visual / physical cues as feedback.  And if the person on the phone is not engaged (if they are a listener) or not getting feedback (if they are a speaker), you’re missed the entire point of a meeting – to inform the people who are on the call and, often, to get their input or assent to a set of decisions.

And one last suggestion: if you’re asking people to call in to a conference call at an inhumane time (very early or very late), be religious about starting the call on time.  It’s the easiest way to show respect for people who aren’t in the room.

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