I was at lunch the other day with a group of school friends. We catch up twice a year and talk about ‘our lives’. Inevitably the conversation is focussed on our family or furry friends and sometimes we even dip into the world of work.
One of the girls who manages a small team in a very large Australian organization made a comment about another manager who had started to type his notes on his laptop during a meeting attended by 8 people. She was sceptical about whether this person was actually following the conversation. This behaviour continued for several meetings, she said, until she tested the listening capacity of this laptop tapper by asking him a question about what had been said. He was able to reply with the ‘correct’ answer (paraphrasing the speakers words) and so my friend is now convinced that it is possible to multi task during meetings.
I strongly refuted the ability for that person to be really listening. So much of our understanding about what is being said (or not said) comes from picking up clues from our facial expressions and our gestures. I asked how is it possible that this person could be picking up the subtleties of communication when they are typing on their laptop? To which, my friend replied, “Well, for the types of meetings we have, he seems to do OK.” Well, OK. So I guess that means that OK is good enough? Or is it?
I then threw in my next argument against typing during a meeting; “I’m perhaps even more concerned about the message that this behaviour sends to everyone else in the room and in particular to the person speaking.” How do people feel about being ignored or receiving the odd question or comment when the person manages to eventually ‘re-engage’ in face to face communication? And when that happens, how receptive will people be to their questioning or thinking, if they haven’t shown the respect to the rest of the meeting participants throughout the meeting time?
Happily, I was quickly supported by another of my girlfriends, a Clinical Psychologist, who was also aware of the potential impact this would have on the group.
I noted that whilst we all had mobile phones and we were all in the habit of using social media, none of us had our devices out at the table. None of us were looking down or disconnected throughout our conversations that day. How weird would that feel if one of us was constantly checking-in or sending messages?
Why do we not have similar respectful behaviours happening in our meetings at work? Have we just accepted that it’s ok to type at meetings, rather than communicate face to face?
If we are required to keep notes, let’s do that in a way that doesn’t impact on others ability to listen. Typing on a laptop generates noise and to be honest it drives me crazy! Perhaps smaller devices like I-Pads are better because noise is reduced, however, have we actually stopped to discuss what is OK and NOT OK when using electronic devices in the workplace? What will work for everyone at your meetings so that the conversation between people, face to face, is the focus, not the keeping of notes or the distraction of email?
What one personal calls multi-tasking may actually be multi-messaging. It might look like multi-tasking and it might feel like multi-tasking to the individual typing, but I’ll bet it generates all sorts of negative feelings for others sitting nearby and potentially a reluctance to contribute fully – ‘why should I bother, he’s not listening anyway’.
I believe that we can push back on some of the current poor ‘business’ habits like using laptops during meetings, and regain the highest level of understanding and co-operation just by being present. If we all want to really understand what’s going on around the table and get the same message, not multiple messages, then let’s agree on how we can make that happen and enable all meeting participants to feel respected in the process.