Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

How to Make a Video Call That Reduces Stress? It May Be Small Talk!

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We are all Zoom-fatigued, aren’t we? Or, if you’re getting a break over summer (Northern hemisphere), you were probably Zoom fatigued recently. I have not had a break because I am heavily involved in supporting our faculty for next semester being mostly online… plus doing a bunch of invited speaking engagements and online workshops plus engaging in lots of my own free and virtual professional development, and being a mom and daughter in these difficult times. So no Zoom break for me!

What I noticed for me, though, is that some Zoom meetings stress me out a lot, while others don’t, and whether or not I am leading or participating was not the main reason.

Originally, I thought that smallish sessions (3-8) people, especially if they were people I knew closely, and even more especially if they were people not from my f2f context but ones I used to meet online in the “old normal pre Covid” anyway… those tended to be generally relaxing and less stressful. I also eventually started to realize how good and thoughtful use of breakout rooms on Zoom or similar helped with a sense of intimacy, with strangers and with old colleagues we haven’t seen in small groups for awhile. It helps a lot. So much so, that I have been using them not only in workshops at my institution and department meetings, but even in larger meetings where I am an invited speaker. Sure, they came to listen to me speak, but they’re also there with each other, and if I can make the space more conducive to learning and socioemotional connection, I will do that for at least a small amount of the time allocated. It often models what I want to say way better than saying it. And people often notice that and approve. I am sure some don’t.

However, I have begun to notice also that some sessions with larger groups of people can be less stressful on me and on others. So I have been thinking about this some more. Mainly because of this tweet, actually, after I gave a session on Inclusive Course Design for Diverse Learners at Davidson college:

What makes a video call more or less stressful, more or less a space of care, is all that’s happening in between and before and after and around and behind it.

(This realization above came to me from a discussion over Twitter DMs and a Google doc I am working on w some close friends towards an abstract we’re working on, but applies here, too).

I gave three sessions recently to complete strangers. Large groups of them. These sessions were less stressful for me because I had met or spoken to the organizers beforehand in preparation and had a good relationship with them and a reasonably good understanding of my audience and their interests and needs. If I had had opportunities to interact with participants before and after, that would have been great too, but not always necessary in the case of a fleeting guest-speaker type meeting. Though I totally crave (like truly crave) the occasional email or Tweet or DM or WhatsApp afterwards that makes me feel connected to the people who were at the session.

Going back to Judith Lin’s list… I am amazed she mentioned speaking slowly because I am often told I speak too fast. For that particular session, I did one key thing differently: instead of trying to do EVERYTHING in one session, I gave participants options to take one of 3 different routes, and they had some time in breakout rooms in small groups to do them and come back.

The smiling is probably just natural/normal for me, and maybe it’s something not all ppl remember to do online? But because I am used to hosting online sessions and am comfortable with them, this is something I do? I also smile a lot in person, so it might just be a natural thing some people do unconsciously. I mean, I don’t enjoy looking at myself online all the time, but it’s a good reminder to smile if you don’t normally 😉

The asking people how they’re feeling part is SO IMPORTANT and I credit Karen Costa with this one. She did it in front of me ONCE in an OLC Ideate session, asking us to put one word or phrase in chat… and I have not ONCE since then not started meeting by asking this question. Not once. Not a keynote, not a conference presentation, not a workshop, not a meeting, not a class. Not one. It makes ALL the difference to ask, because that day might be the day someone just heard of a loved one getting covid. Or the day their cat died. Or the day their university announced job losses. So many such days now, and not enough relief because of covid. So difficult to tell from facial expressions the way we would in an f2f environment. So little time for small talk. Make time for small talk online. It matters more than you know. If people can’t come in a bit early or linger a bit afterwards, make time during your key time together for small talk. It is what makes us human. Notice the part where Judith mentions the personal anecdote about family. I don’t always craft these in advance, they kind of come naturally to me, but I do intentionally keep them as part of my professional practice in any context. It seems more important online.

Judith Lin also mentioned that I gave them time to respond and read out and responded to their responses (in that session I also asked some folks to speak aloud. Whenever I can, I prefer this to just chat, although chat affords wider participation and is importantaso). Pausing is so important online, allowing some white space and silence to help create space for more participation. I did this in my OLC Innovate keynote and it made a difference to me. Some people told me they would imitate this practice.

I also regularly give a 3-hour synchronous institute for our faculty. There are 4 of us doing it together, but I usually handle the breakout room portion which is a complex combination of breakout rooms of different combinations and lengths about 5 times in the session. This session is tiring and sctressful and ppl have connectivity issues so keep dropping out and needing me to send them to breakout rooms again. And I also have some sections where I have to present and answer questions aloud (even though colleagues are answering questions in chat the entire session). This one is generally not an unstressful one for me, but faculty tend to enjoy it, and one of them recently also thanked me for my warmth and humanity in the session. Again, I don’t know if this is “teachable” and I don’t know what Judith Lin meant above when she said I was “teachable”. Perhaps she meant I made my processes explicit, as in, narrated why I was doing stuff? I don’t know. And I don’t know if I know how to help another person be more human or warm online. I do know that my personal relationships with many of the faculty in sessions makes me connected to them more personally, even if I don’t talk to each one directly during the session. I do go in 15 mins early to meet and greet ppl but once they exceed the 25 I can see in Gallery view, it becomes nearly impossible to do. I am also hypervigilant about facilitator break times. Making sure we all take breaks so we can recharge. And modeling this for faculty who teach longer classes.

One last thing I can think of. Well two. If you can remind people and yourself to stretch or move your shoulders or such, it helps a lot. And if you can find space to be playful at any point during the session, or to laugh, or just be less serious for a minute or two, it can break the tension a bit.

Added a minute later: recently in one of those large faculty workshops (~70 participants) a couple of things went wrong w break out rooms. First, i sent ppl out into breakout rooms prematurely because I clicked by mistake. This was easily fixed but funny. And another time I handed over host duties to my colleague and the break out rooms reverted go a different configuration which messed up an activity. We managed eventually, but it was annoying. One of the faculty lingered and thanked us for showing how you can make a mistake and recover from it – that we modeled this for them. The imperfection is more like what they expect of themselves, and what they needed more than us modeling how things work, is modeling how to respond gracefully and recover when things don’t work. I don’t know if I would ever do it on purpose, but I was glad. And perfection is not only overrated – it is problematic and promotes a stressful culture. Or environment as a whole.

What about you? What makes a Video call more or less stressful for you?

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