Liam was getting ready to start an important meeting. He looked around the room and everybody seemed to be doing their own thing. The room held fourteen around an oval table. All seats were full. As he scanned the room, many were typing, some were reading email and others were having conversations on their phones. As he begin to speak, not one person looked up at him.
He noticed that amazingly there was no noise coming from the fingers on the computer keys or the phone conversations. The room was utterly silent. As he continued to talk, everyone continued with what they were doing. When he paused and began to take role, one by one everyone paused, pressed an imaginary button in front of them and said their name (which he could hear). When Liam asked Mike a question, Mike continued typing as if he didn't hear him or see Liam's eyes drilling into him. When Liam asked a second time, Mike pressed the imaginary button and asked him to repeat the question. Liam turned to Maria to get her opinion, but as she talked he couldn't hear a sound. It was as if she was in a glass booth. When he told her this, she pushed the button and apologized for being on mute. A buzzer sound could be heard in the room and it's volume increased with every second. Liam bolted upright in his bed, hand reaching for the alarm and sweat on his pillow. Wow, the dream seemed so real, almost a nightmare. Immediately he thought back to the global web call he led late yesterday and how it felt like those on the call were doing other things besides contributing. These calls were quickly becoming tiresome for him.
If you are honest with yourself, you will agree with me that this happens on most calls where streaming video isn't used. From voice only calls to web platform calls, participants will attempt to take care of another matter if they can. What do you do when you are on a call and you are muted? That was rhetorical, but you were probably thinking about the times you've multitasked!
How do we handle this?
Ok, I'm going to write something that you might think is heresy! Ready ... ask participants in your meeting NOT to mute themselves on calls with fewer than 20 people. Yes, I said NOT to mute themselves. This clearly goes against conventional wisdom that you are used to hearing and reading. There is one more caveat besides the number of participants and that's their background noise. If they are in a noisy place, sure they should mute. But if they are in a quiet space, what's the point of muting? I find it particularly disappointing in a virtual training session when the trainer or producer puts the whole class on mute. With such a manageable number of participants, what message are they sending about how much sharing and collaboration they expect? Can you say lecture?
I've heard all the reasons for muting and most are laughable other than noise that the participant can't control. I say this because, in a face-to-face meeting, the participants should be doing nothing else besides listening and sharing. Why should this be ANY different when they are on the phone or on a virtual platform? Why can't they listen in silence the same way they do in a face-to-face meeting? Is giving 100% of their attention impossible when they are alone? Can they resist typing an email or talking to someone? Asking people (who don't have background noise) to mute is like saying to the group, "I know you are doing other things during this meeting so please mute yourself as not to disturb others". Really?
I ask my meeting participants to avoid using mute unless they have noise that they can't control in the background. Conversation and collaboration are the life blood of successful meetings. Once mute is employed, there is an extra step added to the thought contribution process. People decide if what they have to say is important enough to take themselves off of mute. This should never happen.
Next time think about why you are muting yourself before you mute!