Moving to Virtual Blog

How to Deal with Silence in a Virtual Environment

May 20, 2015 | Posted in Conferences, Courses, eLearning Best Practices, Webinars by icohere

Does your company host virtual meetings, courses or conferences?

For many companies, it has become the norm for employees from one department or even multiple departments to meet regularly using an online platform. And from the smallest online meeting to the largest online conference, there are sure to be challenging situations that arise. Today’s post addresses the most common online meeting killer: silence. We share advice from a recent webinar presented by Sue Brundege, an organizational learning facilitator and coach with Integrated Work.

Online Meeting Silence

How do you know if your online audience is listening?

When hosting an online meeting of any size, one of the primary goals is to fully engage the audience. Facilitators will often ask a question to spark discussion or gauge comprehension.  But there are times when a question is asked and silence fills the virtual room.

Many of us are programmed to think of silence as a sign of confusion, stress, shyness, discomfort, or disengagement.

Brundege says not to fret, that silence has many meanings. It does not necessarily mean the audience is disengaged. It could be a sign of agreement or reflection, and that they are completely engaged with what you are saying and don’t feel the need to speak. However, it’s the facilitator’s job to help the audience through the silence.

Tips for Dealing with Silence:

Wait 5-6 seconds longer than is comfortable for you when you have asked a question.

Brundege advises facilitators to allow a comfortable amount of time after asking a question. The time allows people to do their inner processing and come up with their idea. Or, it may be that they are pondering a question. She warns to find the right balance between leaving the space and giving people time, but also make sure they don’t feel like they have been left on the side of the road.

Check out what’s going on – ask to clarify thoughts or solicit specific feedback.

To move on from the silence, Brundege intervenes with more questions to clarify the meaning of the silence. She may ask questions like “How did that question land for you all?”  “Is there something about that question that is problematic?” or “Is there another way that I could address this?”

Use one or two more questions to clarify the silence. If you are still experiencing silence, then put the audience at ease by acknowledging the difficulty of the question and then moving on.  Try a statement like, “It’s challenging isn’t it, let’s move on for now.”

Use a closed ended question to break the silence.

A closed ended question is not good for engagement, but it can break a silence. For webinars specifically, a closed ended question, or launching a poll with the audience, can jump start the conversation. Brundege says if you know the topic is sensitive or it’s a new initiative the audience is challenged with, as the facilitator you should focus on being transparent and genuine.

Turn to primed participants or those you know well for help.

For recurring meetings, call on a trusted colleague for a response. Brundege also recommends priming a group of participants in advance of the meeting to let them know you may call on them. Once others see that the audience is engaged, they are more likely to open up and participate.

Use humor; be authentic, gentle and kind.

An online meeting has as much to do with the atmosphere of the meeting and the presentation style of the facilitator as it does the topic. Injecting humor is a good way to put the audience at ease. Brundege advises facilitators to always be gentle and kind when addressing the audience. You don’t have the advantage of facial expressions and body language in an online setting and so it’s the facilitator’s job to create a welcoming environment.

Want more tips for dealing with challenging situations in a virtual environment? Focus on the design of the eLearning experience. Take a look at iCohere’s free webinar series focusing on eLearning design. Participants can earn 5 CAE credits.



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