Ask almost any coach, trainer or remote leader these days whether they work virtually as well as face to face, and they are very likely to tell you that they do because they save travel time, room booking costs, increase flexibility, and so on.
Studies suggest that a significant number of coaches do work virtually, but the vast majority still prefer to deliver ‘in person’ coaching – that is, with physical presence in the same room.
So what is responsible for virtual communication being cast as the poor relation, in the professional context at least of coaching?
One likely answer is the fear of technological failure.
If you have struggled fruitlessly to join a meeting on Webex or Skype, or have been picked up on webcam inadvertently taking a noisy slurp of tea, or worse – yawning (those headset mics are so efficient, aren’t they?) you’ll know that sinking feeling that such moments evoke.
The other reason commonly quoted is that working virtually can feel ‘clinical or remote’ with the absence of ‘human presence’ and that the use of a phone or computer screen creates a physical barrier to trust, warmth, and engagement of participants.
Is there another way to look at all this?
Might we even start to look at virtual communication not simply as a second-best, back-up option, but rather as a different way of communicating altogether, with its own unique benefits and possibilities?
I believe the answer to that question to be a resounding ‘yes’! The acronym VELVET sums up six factors that can help us achieve a trustworthy and engaging presence across any distance.
V – Virtual Etiquette
In all but a minority of situations, leaders, trainers and facilitators, whether working virtually or face to face, will as a priority aim to establish credibility and create trust in their meetings.
In the virtual arena, whether the client is staring at a computer screen or talking into a phone, she will particularly need to know what to expect from the meeting, coaching or training event, and, in turn, what the Chair or trainer/coach expects back from them.
In other words, how the conversations will take place – how will people be invited (or not) to speak; is it all right to interrupt- and so forth.
These may seem like minor considerations, but the impact of ‘getting it wrong’ in virtual space for a meeting attendee is all too real.
Especially when the still-pervasive ‘webinar culture’ of meetings and training events (often delivered as monologic presentations with limited active contribution from others) has encouraged passive disengagement, leading many attendees to ‘dial down’ their energetic input and concentration considerably.
The ‘etiquette’ of any virtual meeting, whatever its purpose, should therefore seek to establish ground rules for engagement and enable a safe, loosely-structured environment for free-flowing explorative dialogue.
E – Emotional Connection
Experience shows that, when meeting virtually, many clients quickly leap to the topic they wish to explore without any friendly preliminaries. Before addressing the meeting agenda, the leader or trainer might begin with a brief personable “check-in,” asking questions such as, “How are you today?”, “How’s your week been?” “What’s your mood today?” etc.
Why is this important? When meeting in person, we can smile, shake hands, make eye contact and chat – and usually do. In virtual space, we may be looking at a blank computer screen. The check-in process reminds the attendee that he is talking to a real, live, attentively listening and empathic human being. It enables the Chair or trainer to ‘warm the air’ and help participants relax and get comfortable.
L- Listening with Curiosity
Listening at the deepest level of awareness is a core skill for remote leaders, trainers and facilitators alike. But in virtual space, how do attendees knowwe are paying attention, especially if silent and invisible? Even with a webcam, cues such as body movement and facial gestures are often unavailable.
Listening with curiosity means paying deep attention to the attendee or client’s words and nonverbal utterances (coughs, changes of tone, hesitations, pauses—all of which we hear more intensely when physical contact is missing) and sometimes asking questions about them (e.g., “What is the silence telling us?”).
We might take care to ask “nudge” questions (e.g., “Yes? And so …? And then …?”), and perhaps ask these even more often in a coaching context, and certainly more than when we work face to face.
Remote leaders and trainers might even share reflections that indicate our physical presence (e.g. ”When you said that, I closed my eyes. I felt quite surprised …”) and summarise key comments – ‘So what I’m hearing is … is that correct?’ – a little more frequently than when meeting face to face.
V – Vocal Presence
In virtual space, establishing our coaching presence requires a new awareness of the impact of our voice—its ability to channel energy and show connection, understanding, enthusiasm, warmth and concern.
We may need to speak more slowly and use pauses and changes of tone and pace to make distinctions, underline uncertainties and open conversational doors to new possibilities.
Many people are surprised to discover that, working virtually, our voices can carry as much subtlety of meaning as visual presence, and that sometimes using a webcam can be more distracting than helpful. By the same token, silence – if carefully signposted and managed – can be a powerful tool for reflection, and challenge ‘stuck’ thinking.
E – Engaging Visually
When meeting via telephone or computer for the first time, ensure meeting attendees know what you look like, especially without use of a webcam.
Exchanging photos or posting these on slides is helpful; so is including a friendly, welcoming slide at the start of the session rather than a blank, ‘faceless’ meeting screen.
But visual presence refers to more than how you wish to be perceived by your team or training attendees.
While meeting face to face we are unlikely to share our notes with others freely as we write them; Internet platforms allow us to scribble thoughts and questions on screen/whiteboards, or exchange a spontaneous insight via a chat space, so that in virtual meetings intuitive reflections can be shared spontaneously and emergently without constraint.
And this can be done through images as well as words, depending on attendee preferences and the ‘culture’ or virtual etiquette of the meeting itself. In this way, meeting virtually offers a particular opportunity to explore questions, dilemmas and ‘proud moments’ with colleagues or trainees, often with considerable impact.
T – Technology
Knowing how to operate your technology matters, most definitely. But practice will get you there undoubtedly, and technological failure rarely damages coaching presence as long as we remain calm and flexible, with alternatives at hand.
Much of the art of heading off technological challenges lies in preventing them, through effective meeting ‘set up’.
Also, use a technological channel which suits the needs of your meeting – email, for example, is characteristically discouraged for conversation about deep-seated emotional challenges.
A tip for medium to larger meetings (eg 5 people or more) is to engage a technical producer who can help participants join and communicate effectively in the virtual session.
Numerous clients have told me how surprisingly enjoyable and ‘fun’ they have found Nomadic’s training, coaching and virtual meetings.
The virtual environment is indeed a place where the imagination can play, and serious topics can be explored with respectful rigour, but also a light touch and gentle humour, in the ongoing service of our teams, colleagues and clients.
Next week: Keep Calm and Carry On? Trauma-free technology management in virtual space
© Jude Tavanyar, November 2018
Image source: www.freepik.com
Jude Tavanyar is a communications specialist, ICF-certified coach and leadership trainer who has designed and delivered coaching and training programmes for senior leaders globally since 1987. A freelance journalist and family psychotherapist by background, she worked as a communications executive in UK national organisations. She has been an Associate with Nomadic IBP since 2000, and with other global executive education agencies such as INSEAD and Centre for Creative Leadership.