Tuning in to a Conference Call

Q. My team is doing more work through conference calls. However, we struggle to keep everybody involved when the call consists of several people in one room and three or four people on individual call-in lines.

Those of us who are “remote” feel we interrupt if we “jump in” to the conversation since we don’t get to raise our hand or see the non-verbal cues that would let us take advantage of a natural break in the conversation. This causes us to feel excluded and we don’t always get to have a say in the conversation.

Can you share some strategies for getting everybody involved in a conference call?

Conferenced Out

A. To answer your question, I want to begin by sharing a sad but true story. I was a participant in a critical, but boring conference call involving twenty-two people. Someone was discussing something I wasn’t very interested in when a call came in on another line. I cleverly put the conference call on hold and answered the other line, talked for a few short minutes, and returned to the conference call.

I immediately noticed the person speaking was talking so loud he was practically shouting for a few moments then he began speaking in a normal tone. A few minutes later, another call came in so I put the conference call on hold, took the new call, conversed for a few minutes, finished, and then returned to the conference call.

This time there was total silence on the line. The call host then said, “Now it’s stopped. This is so strange. Why would music suddenly start playing in the middle of our conference call then stop and suddenly start again and then stop again? I’m sorry. I’ve never experienced this before.”

After the conference call, with a bit of experimentation, I realized that when I put people on hold, our office phone system immediately starts playing elevator music for whoever is on hold, which in this case was all of the conference call participants.

My bad.

There are many lessons you could learn from my story about my relative intelligence, but the lesson I would like to point out is that it’s very difficult to hold everyone’s attention on conference calls. Come on, admit it. How many of you have read and answered e-mails during a conference call? Without the face-to-face interaction, it’s more difficult to hold others’ attention and to be personally accountable to the person speaking.

I absolutely believe John Naisbitt, author of Megatrends, was right when he wrote, “As human beings become capable of anonymous electronic communication they [will] concurrently need more close-up personal interaction.” Let me start by saying that I strongly recommend you never have a crucial conversation using e-mail or instant messaging. Too much of the meaning is ambiguous or lost. When someone writes a sentence in all caps, does that mean he’s shouting? Excited? Mad? What does it mean when the font is all red?

Use e-mail to share information, but when emotions run strong, you have opposing opinions, and stakes are high, it’s time for a face-to-face conversation. In difficult circumstances when distance or time will not allow it, then, with the greatest of reluctance, you may have to resort to the phone but know that you will be missing half of the critical data—the visual information. You will not see facial expressions, gestures, or body language. True, you will be able to hear the other person’s voice and intonation, but you have to ask a lot of clarifying questions to make sure you understand. For example: “After my last point, there was a long silence. Are you thinking about what I said or do you disagree?”

When we “manage by phone” or “team by speaker,” we run the risk of sacrificing effectiveness for efficiency. When using “high tech” to communicate, the “high touch” becomes much more important. This means meeting face-to-face when possible, and when it’s not possible, spending a lot of time listening, checking for understanding, and having individual conversations. When leading a meeting over the phone, use an agenda and structure questions and requests for input into the agenda.

Throughout your meeting, frequently ask the following questions: “Does anyone have any questions?” “Can anyone build on that idea?” “Who has an opinion on this?” “Does anyone see this differently?” Also, remember to ask individuals specifically for their comments: “Leroy, what do you think of this proposal?” “Sabrina, I haven’t heard your view on this issue. Would you mind sharing?” Sometimes a roll call is in order on important issues: “I want to get each of your ideas on this. Let’s start with Benjamin . . .” Remember to use your AMPP skills (Ask, Mirror, Paraphrase, Prime) and intentionally Explore Others’ Paths.

If you are not the leader of the call, these ideas still apply. Even if you aren’t the leader, you can still say, “Rachael, how do you see this problem?” and invite others to participate. When you are a participant in a conference call and not the leader, you need to STATE your path—share your facts, tell your story, ask for other’s paths, talk tentatively, and encourage testing.

You also need to initiate more than you otherwise would to get your meaning in the pool. Consider using these phrases: “I’d like to add something . . .” “Before we go on to the next topic, I would like to comment on the recommendation . . .” “I have an opinion I would like to share . . .” “Sorry to interrupt, but I want the views in our region to be considered . . .”

I have personally seen the introduction of these skills change the culture of a team within three conference calls. Whether advocated by the leader or just modeled by a caring team member, we owe it to ourselves and others to get all the relevant meaning into the Pool of Shared Meaning. If we do, we not only get to enjoy the efficiencies of technology by saving time and the costs of travel, but we can also reap the benefits of being an effective team.