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Turn-taking in online meetings

Photo by Felicia Buitenwerf on Unsplash

One of the important aspects of learning to speak, is not just to form the words, but to learn a vital skill called turn-taking. As we first start using our words, we also have to learn whose turn it is to speak in a conversation – and we do this by observing a number of linguistic and non-linguistic cues.

The basic rules of turn-taking are that we don’t talk over each other, we don’t interrupt each other, and we don’t have long silences between turns – but these can also vary between cultures, and have been studied extensively with respect to gender differences.

Some of the cues that we use to determine whose turn it is to speak, include vocal patterns, timing, eye contact, and hearing that someone has finished speaking. Voice pitch, body language, questions, even using some sort of concluding phrase – these are all ways we signal that we’re finished talking.

On online meeting platforms, however, our ability to distinguish these cues is diminished. People are looking at their screens, at a host of faces, instead of making direct eye contact with us. There are often delays in transmission, or broken-up portions of speech when the signal dips, and the sound and signal quality can affect our ability to interpret what we’re hearing and find the appropriate space to interject or add to the discussion.

In addition, feedback – a vital part of communication – is often delayed because of transmission problems. You laugh at a joke and it’s heard at the wrong time, or you agree with one thing and the delayed transmission makes it sound like you’re agreeing with something else.

This is all part of why online meetings can feel exhausting, and unsatisfactory – because you’re having to work so hard to interpret what’s going on, and may not always feel that you’ve been able to say your piece – or that you’ve really been heard.

The bottom line is that you can’t take a bunch of people who are normally in a room together, separate them, bring them together on a screen, and expect that things will run as they always have. Running effective online meetings may require a different protocol. Here are some suggestions:

1. Allocate one chair or host per meeting, whose responsibility is both to ensure everyone sticks to the agenda, and ensure that all voices are heard.

2. Allocate which people will be the key speaker per topic – depending on responsibilities – and then allow regulated time for feedback thereafter – one person at a time, with everyone else muted.

3. Encourage participants to attend the meeting with a notebook in hand so that they can jot down any questions or discussion points to raise when it is their turn.

4. Encourage participants to keep their points short and succinct, and if necessary, divide the group into smaller subgroups who can iron out difficult issues and report back the next time with a solution, to keep the level of ‘noise’ down.

5. Encourage participants to signal that they have finished speaking by saying so, in so many words.

6. Keep meetings short, to prevent fatigue.

It will be awkward to regulate turn-taking in such an overt way, but if it results in better communication and less frustration, the end result is likely to be better engagement, and greater productivity from your employees.


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