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To Mute or Not to Mute? That Is the Question

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Author: Nick Hawcroft | September 21, 2020

Silence: the worst thing you can hear after cracking a joke.

Worse than a groan. Worse than a sigh. Worse even than someone saying, “That’s offensive – I’m calling HR.”

The best you can wish for in an online training or meeting is that everyone has their microphones on mute, but that shred of hope still doesn’t shake the sinking feeling that the course or meeting has got off to a terrible start. How are you going to build a relationship with this group of participants over 3 or 4 sessions if they’re sitting at home, arms folded and face stony, resenting your every attempt at humour? How are you going to get anything done in this meeting if everyone is sitting there in silence?

I don’t know who you are, or which company you work for, but I remember you dug me out of my hole of self-doubt during one of my early online trainings. I was working through my trainer intro, showing self-deprecating slides of the dark side of British culture (clue: it involves alcohol and public disorder).

Silence.

I moved on to the slides about mistakes in newspaper headlines as I talked about my career history in journalism. “Dead Body Found in Cemetery” read the headline onscreen.

More silence.

Then my hero, whoever he is, unmuted himself to say, “Just to let you know, Nick – we’re finding this funny even though you can’t hear anyone laughing.”

Thanks, buddy. I was expecting the group to throw virtual rotten fruit at me if things didn’t improve.

To mute or unmute is one of the many difficult questions the world of online trainings and meetings has uncovered. Participants tend to mute themselves out of courtesy. No one wants to hear you munching your toast and jam and slurping your coffee, of course. But then, this can create a logjam when you ask the group a question and people reply in the chat box.

In my first ever online training, I asked a question, people responded reasonably quickly in the chat box, and I was ready to move on. Just then, I noticed in the chat box: “Grzegorz is typing…”

“Oh, one moment, everyone – Grzegorz has a question,” I said. And waited.

And waited… and waited.

“Grzegorz is typing…” resolutely stayed there in the chat box, with only the rippling effect of the ellipsis to show that Grzegorz was indeed still typing.

Seconds ticked by. I made some awkward British small talk to fill them. It felt like everyone had been staring at the chat box for half an hour when Grzegorz unmuted to say, “It’s OK – I found the answer in the handbook.”

This is why, as a trainer, I much prefer participants to stay unmuted (unless they’re eating toast or slurping coffee). It leads to a much more dynamic session (and you can hear the occasional chuckle to let you know your gags are being appreciated).

That’s not to say logjams are absent when people use their microphones. At least in face-to-face trainings and meetings, participants can subconsciously pick up clues when someone is about to speak. They might raise their hand or take a breath, for example. But these clues are missing online, which has led to awkwardness when 2 people ask a question at the same time, followed by both saying, “Sorry – you go first”, followed by a moment’s silence – and then both again speaking at the same time.

But these little hiccups are fine if they keep the energy and interaction of the session going. Trainers and people who chair meetings love pushback, questions, and discussion. It’s much better than preaching into the void for 2 hours. So, feel free to unmute and chip in anytime.

 

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