One thing the last year has shown me is just how difficult it can be to find an opening to say something in online meetings. Waiting in vain for a pause, taking the plunge only to find that the person speaking hasn’t finished after all or that another member of the group has had the same impulse – it can all be very frustrating.
Tiny signals make all the difference
When everyone is sitting together in a room, there are many subtle clues that someone would like to say something. These could be tiny changes in posture or a hardly audible intake of breath, for example. We may not be able to actually put our finger on the change, but we notice it and act accordingly. And turn-taking runs much more smoothly. These signals are much more difficult to detect in online meetings.
So, what can you do to create an opening for yourself and others?
1. Lean in
Raising your hand may be a solution in larger meetings, but in smaller ones it often feels a bit strange. Like being back at school. A tip which I read a couple of months ago, is to lean forward and open your mouth slightly (thank you, Susanne Westphal, if you’re reading this).
The idea appealed to me because it’s simple and makes good use of what can be seen on screen: your head and shoulders. I’ve tried it out and can report that while not always successful, it does often work quite well. I’ve found that where there was one person running the meeting, they have often understood that I wanted to say something and brought me in.
Try it and see what you think.
2. Don’t jump straight in with your message
Another approach is to accept that transitions from one speaker to another are likely to be a little difficult in online meetings and structure what you say accordingly. There will always be false starts when two people begin speaking at the same time and in many cases it can take listeners a moment to identify who’s speaking now. To avoid important information getting lost, I recommend starting with an introductory phrase. This eases you into the conversation and if you find that the other person hasn’t finished speaking after all or someone starts speaking at exactly the same moment as you, none of your actual message is lost. It also gives those listening a few seconds to shift their attention to you before you make your point.
A few introductory phrases you can use:
- Can I just say something here?
- I’d like to come in here if I may.
- May I just add something here?
- If I can just come in here, …
- That’s interesting and …
- [Name], I’m glad you’ve mentioned that because …
3. React to the signals
If you’re the person currently speaking, there’s also a lot you can do to help discussions run smoothly. The main thing is: Don’t simply ignore signals that someone would like to say something. React promptly.
If it’s a good time, invite them to join in:
- Yes, [Name]?
- [Name], you look like you’d like to add something.
- Would you like to come in here, [Name]?
- I see that a couple of people have something to say here. Would you like to start [Name 1]? Followed by [Name 2] and then [Name 2].
If now isn’t the right moment, show that you’ve noticed that they want to speak and provide a perspective:
- XY you look like you’d like to add something. I’ll just finish this point and then I’ll come back to you.
- I’ll just finish what I’m saying and then it’s your turn.
- I think it’s best if I finish telling you about … and then I’ll hand over to you [Name].
- So, [Name 1] and [Name 2] would both like to come in here. I’ll get back to you in a minute.
Explicitly acknowledging that others would like to join in, even if now isn’t the right moment, has benefits for everyone. The current speaker doesn’t need to “fight off” interruptions, those with something to say can sit back and listen properly, safe in the knowledge that their turn will come soon. In short, everyone can relax.