How to Effectively Manage Multiple Participants on a Conference Call

We all know the benefits of co-located teams and face-to-face communication and we hear again and again how communicating in-person rather than over the phone is much more productive. But that does not mean that in-person communication is always an option.  Sometimes it is simply necessary to communicate via conference calls and, hopefully, web conferences.  And given the alternative of email, phone conversations provide significant benefits, provided they are facilitated appropriately.

Over the years, I’ve developed a few habits that I believe help create more productive conference call meetings, especially where requirements are involved. Let’s take a quick look at these practices so you can apply them to your own conference calls.

Verbalize the Non-Verbal on a Conference Call

One of the challenges with phone conversation is that participants don’t get a lot of feedback about what’s happening after they speak. Being a writer and a note-taker and a head-nodder and a brow-furrowed thinker, a lot of my feedback is non-verbal and this doesn’t translate very well over the phone. To compensate, I really focus on on talking through what I’m thinking or doing. For example, I’ll update a requirements document or take notes on the screen.

When this isn’t possible, I say things like, “that’s a really good point, let me write that down” or “I’m being quiet because I’m making a detailed note of what you just said.”  Externalizing your non-verbal responses can help build trust and keep conversations flowing.

Be a Conduit for Side Conversations

Another challenge is when phone participants cannot all hear one another.   This can happen deliberately (i.e. side conversations) or as a result of inadequate telecommunications equipment.  Don’t underestimate the negative impact frequent side conversations can have on a team and, conversely, the positive impact of facilitating an environment of open communication. Side conversations send the signal that you are sharing something you don’t want others to hear. It’s the adult equivalent of whispering in class.

I often find myself being the conduit for side conversations, summarizing the results for those on the phone, asking for the same if I’m the one who can’t hear, or simply asking people to speak up.   You can do this in a positive way by emphasizing the perspective of those on the other side of the line. A statement like “you know, I think so and so in the other office might have an opinion on that or might benefit from hearing what you have to say” communicates that the other person’s ability to hear is just as important as everyone who has the benefit of being in the room.

Eliminate Side Conversations By Having Everyone Call In

I’ve also seen some success with asking every participant, whether in the same office or not, call-in to the conference line.  This can be especially helpful when there is a dominant office from a numbers perspective and it’s difficult for the microphone to pick up everyone’s voices.  This also creates a level playing-field and necessitates open communication.

>>Learn More About Running Effective Meetings

Check out one of these articles from the archive to learn how to facilitate more effective meetings and conference calls:

How to Create Quick and Effective Meeting Agendas

8 Ways to Be Less Irritating and Minimize Follow-Up Questions After a Requirements Meeting

Why to Absolutely, Positively, Never Let the Conversation Get Away From You

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