2020’s Real MVP: The Virtual Meeting MUTE Button

The Key to Making Your Online Voice Heard

By Cara Bedford

As this tumultuous year churns on, it is becoming more obvious than ever that the circumstances that we used to treat as contingencies now represent a daily reality. Indeed, if there is something that we can treat as a truth these days, it’s the fact that the global pandemic ensured that most of – and in many cases, all – our private and professional interactions have moved into online spaces.

We’re now used to splitting our time between the home office setup – whether it’s a room we have entirely for ourselves, or just a nook in the corner of an apartment that we’re renting – and the rest of our home. The other space is limitless and intangible. Over the past months, we’ve all spent more hours in Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or Google Meetings than we ever thought possible.

In reality we might be by ourselves, but we’re not alone online: there is often a whole team of well-meaning and well-mannered people who we had no trouble communicating with in person. However, now we’re dealing with faulty mics, blurry cameras, and lag spikes; the ebb and flow of communication creates a chaos that is anything but creative. What, then, is the correct approach to ensure that communication remains both civil and efficient?

When Muting Speaks Volumes

Introducing the mute button – something we rarely considered to be anything more than an option, now quickly becoming a premium feature of conference calls. As soon as we press it, there is total silence on our end; it helps us compose ourselves, it lessens the aural burden on our colleagues, and it teaches us how to listen.

We need to edit out the inevitable cacophony by splitting the conversation into fragments to retain its rhythm; it may sound like a paradox, but practice shows otherwise. You’re consciously reaching out towards a button that will help you compose your thoughts, tune out your kids if they accidentally wander into the room, and give a signal to other participants that they’re free to speak their mind.

Be wary, however, of the tension that can arise from continual use of this feature: liberal use of the unmute option is the equivalent of someone barging in on someone else’s monologue. On the Internet, it’s much harder to correct course of the narrative if the voices keep colliding, and this can be avoided if we remember that patience is a virtue and that mute button actually drives the dialogue forward. This overlapping speech in a meeting is a counterproductive time waster. If everyone is talking, no one is listening.

If you are keeping your finger poised over the unmute button throughout the meeting, you’re probably doing it wrong. The mute button gives us each a second to consider “is what I’m about to say adding to the conversation?” and “is someone else talking and should I wait for them to finish?” This slows down the conversation and edits us in real time.

This is no easy feat as quality listening skills have become a rare commodity in a time where each of us has dozens of distractions pulling at our attention at any given moment. This is rarely more apparent than when you have multiple individuals joining a virtual meeting from home.

In this case, not only does the MUTE button ensure your coworkers never hear your kids screaming for goldfish crackers in the background, it also helps to tame another common distraction in our own heads: the voice telling us to speak up, share our opinion, give our two cents, weigh in on the situation, etc, etc. Having less focus on what I will say next is not only a kind of relief, it helps me retain more of what is being said.

Lower the Audio to Level the Playing Field

A recent survey showed that women make up less than a quarter of the Canadian workforce when it comes to fields of science and technology. As a woman in tech, I have had the opportunity to work with dozens of smart and capable men, but I have also experienced what it’s like to be outnumbered and, as a result, disenfranchised in the meetings.

To be an odd man out – to use an appropriate idiom – as a woman, a minority, or even just a naturally soft-spoken, introverted individual while trying to be heard in meetings can be daunting. This is when the mute button can step in as a surprising, but welcome ally to equality in every virtual setting. It edits us all in even measure, and contributes to online etiquette, with the potential to form a level of professionalism previously unreached offline.

If you’re looking at your mute button now, remember that it’s not silently judging you or trying to take away your voice; instead, it represents a tool that will help you lead by example, and set the standard for others to follow. There is a reason why every device with an audio outlet also comes with a capability for abrupt silence. This doesn’t just take the sound or the tone away: it creates the prerequisite for listening to other voices.

While this surge in online communication is somewhat unprecedented, it was greatly helped by the research previously done on the subject; just because we had to accelerate our professional habits does not mean that these problems were not already affecting every sphere of business. Just last year, online scheduling service Doodle released its State of Meetings report which showed that the cost of inefficient meetings in the United States alone will reach nearly $400 billion by the end of the year. Loss of money is certainly one thing, but there is also a human cost to this problem. There is a lesson about alienation to be had here, one which can and will be readily applied to physical meetings when they eventually come back on the schedule.

The Importance of Etiquette

If we can manage to get our virtual meetings to be driven by mutual understanding and a common goal, we can avoid the censorship angle that authority often entails. Using the mute button is the opposite of policing content; think of it as a conversation starter, a metaphorical dam where each person can control the flow and no one wants a flood to happen.

Psychologists have been on the case of virtual meetings for quite some time now; in the era of social distancing, quality engagements are the metric that keeps a team together. In a 2003 article, professor of business administration and psychology Jane Dutton speaks about the measures we can take to convey presence; this is important if we want to understand what it means being psychologically available, and realize that attention is a commodity.

Dutton posits that attention can be consumed – and if this is done with care, participants can establish mutual connection that will energize further discourse. Now that we have another term in our arsenal, we can clearly delineate from silence (induced by pressing the mute button), then move towards listening, and realize that attention is created – and consumed – in this process.

Benefits of a Virtual Setting

There are other, perhaps less abstract but nonetheless efficient, techniques of communication to be thought of here. While audio is the key to both connection and confusion, there are visual cues, both when it comes to interface within which the meeting is conducted and the simple camera feed from each participant. Just being able to come online and see a wall of familiar faces welcoming you can be reassuring – you join a grid of equals, and you will increase your presence even with a grainy camera.

Sometimes, you can get cut off mid-conversation by a failing audio channel, rather than any sort of mute button. Fortunately, you’re able to instantly notify other participants by using a chat function. After all, text itself is a visual cue, and can we can bring something to everyone’s attention without interrupting an audio conversation. An inconvenient truth about tech we use is that it will inevitably fail, and fail often; we will go a long way in lessening the accumulation of stress simply by acknowledging this. Being in a team means sharing the responsibilities, and while your issues are getting fixed, others can step in and make themselves heard.

Online Moderation and Offline Balance

In its section about net-iquette, Encyclopedia Britannica reminds us to remember the human when it comes to online communication. Patience and forgiveness are not reserved solely for personal settings; the conference room we create through aforementioned choices must consider the individual qualities of each and every participant. Teams represent a mélange of individual psyches, and procedures cannot be set in stone. They need to take the background of everyone involved into account, and respect their individuality and voice.

I believe we need to learn to practice moderation, which can have a twofold meaning: one that fosters understanding, and other that respects the authority within the online space itself. It may be necessary to task a person with conducting a meeting, not unlike an orchestral performance. If the employees involved realize that conversations segmented in this way create a network of equal opinions, assorted in an optimal manner for everyone to consider, we’re that much closer to a better balance between our home and office life.

So, the next time you’re in a virtual meeting, take a second to thank your MUTE button for its unexpected role in the fight for equality and for making your listening skills just a little more refined in the virtual workplace.

Female Voice Audio
When Muting Speaks Volumes
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