Phone Meeting Cues

Fixing Over-Talking and Under-Talking

By Carol Wolf

Over-talking (some people talking too much) and under-talking (some people not talking enough) are common problems in phone meetings. The good news is that they can be surprisingly fast and easy to fix.

Phone Meeting Challenge

One challenge of phone meetings (also called teleconferences, phone conferences, voice conferences, and virtual meetings) is that familiar cues can get lost or scrambled when people are not face-to-face.

People often use body language cues in meetings. When they want to speak, they may straighten up, lean forward, and take a breath. When they agree, they may nod; when they disagree, they may lean away from the speaker. If they need clarification, they may look unconvinced or confused.

These visual cues get lost in phone meetings. Even if the meeting uses video cameras, visual cues tend to get scrambled. Therefore, cues that work in phone meetings need to replace visual cues. Otherwise, lack of cues can lead to problems, such as over-talking and under-talking.

Luckily, replacing cues is surprisingly easy.

Example: A Team with a Problem

I recall helping a team with a serious phone-meeting problem: one person talked so much that others couldn’t get a word in edgewise.

It turned out that this over-talker didn’t mean to dominate the phone meetings. Where she lived and worked, people routinely jumped in and interrupted each other when they had something to say.

Since that didn’t happen, and she couldn’t see visual signals that people were ready to speak, she thought that everyone else was refusing to talk. So, she kept talking to avoid awkward silences. She expected others to interrupt her and start talking whenever they were ready.

Unfortunately, her ongoing talk kept others from speaking.

The rest of the team was listening for a cue of silence. They expected a bit of silence after one person finished talking, before the next person spoke. In their eyes, starting to talk without that bit of silence would be a rude interruption. They didn’t want to be rude, so, since the over-talker never left that bit of silence, they didn’t speak.

Once we understood what was happening, we found ways for the leader (who had brought me in to help), the under-talkers, and the over-talker all to help solve the problem by using cues that would work in phone meetings.

The Leader: Going Down the List

In that organization, leaders of face-to-face meetings often “went around the table” asking for input. That is, a leader asked one person for input. When that person finished speaking, the leader asked the person sitting beside the first person, and so on around the table.

I suggested a phone-meeting version of that process: the leader would go down the list of participants, calling on each person in turn. This would give everyone the chance to talk. Also, since everyone had the same list of attendees, they could all see who was next on the list, and when their own turns would come. The list served as a visual cue.

As we expected, the team found this structure familiar and useful. They adopted it enthusiastically. In fact, for important discussions they went down the list more than once: at the start and end of the discussion, and sometimes in the middle as well.

The Under-Talkers: Inviting Others to Speak

I reminded the team that as someone finished speaking, he or she could invite someone else to speak next. The speaker might say, “Rupen, I know this topic will affect your sub-team. Are there things we should keep in mind as we talk about it now?”

The speaker could also invite a group of people to talk. He or she might say, “I am very interested to hear from those who have not spoken yet.”

Such invitations make it easy for others to speak. They are helpful cues. In phone meetings, they can replace missing visual cues like facing and nodding to the next person to speak.

This team found that these invitations worked well. They reduced confusion. The team could allow the bit of silence, and then an invited speaker would take up the discussion. It was not a problem if the invited person was not ready to speak to the issue yet. In that case, he or she would simply say something like, “Thank you, but I need to give this more thought before I speak.”

The invitations also helped the over-talker avoid nervous talk. She tended to chatter whenever she thought no one else would speak. The invitations showed who would speak next, so the bit of silence after the invitation did not trigger her impulse to chatter.

The Over-Talker: Using a Talk Tally Sheet

To help the over-talker self-manage how often she spoke, I recommended that she use a Talk Tally Sheet to compare how many times each participant talked. This is a clear, easy way to compare how much people talk during a meeting. It also shows how many long speeches each person makes.

Anyone can do this. A Talk Tally Sheet just lists the names of all participants. When someone speaks, you make a tally mark (“/”) by their name. If they speak for a long time, you cross the tally mark, turning it into a plus sign (“+”). A plus sign counts as two tally marks.

The over-talker wanted to speak moderately often. Therefore I suggested that she not exceed three speeches more than the quietest person in the meeting. That is, if someone did not speak at all, the over-talker could speak three times (0+3). If the quietest person spoke only once, the over-talker could speak four times (1+3).

Once she reached that limit, she should only ask others for their thoughts. Of course, if the quietest person spoke again, so could she.

She was willing to try.

The tally sheet clearly showed her how often she spoke compared to others. To her dismay, at the first meeting it showed her speaking more than all the other participants combined. She had not realized that the balance was so extremely skewed.

She quickly found the tally sheet a very useful visual cue for herself. Seeing its pattern take shape led her to speak less often, to listen better, and to think longer before she spoke.

Even so, she often reached her limit of three speeches more than the meeting’s quietest person. When that happened, she limited herself to asking others for their thoughts. This usually prompted the quietest person to speak again, which would raise her limit.

Within a few months, she stopped being seen as a domineering over-talker. In fact, she gained a good reputation for listening and encouraging others to speak!

Results

The team quickly saw results from using these new cues. Within two weeks, the situation turned around. Within a month, the over-talking/under-talking problem was gone.

Summary: Fixing Phone Meeting Problems by Adding Cues that Work

This team solved its over-talking/under-talking problem by replacing lost visual cues with new cues that worked well in phone meetings. They added the new cues by:

  • “Going down the list” to take turns talking
  • Inviting others to speak
  • Using a Talk Tally Sheet to track how often members talked, and setting self-limits

The new cues were easy to add, and rapidly fixed a serious, disruptive problem.

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