Thursday, June 14, 2012

Surviving the Conference Call Battlefield: Skills and Strategies for Successful Small Group Phone Conferencing – Part II

Part I captured the tension of a high stakes conference call with a high profile client and fellow team members. The essay highlighted the challenging dynamics of the non-Skype phone environment along with the divergent if not competitive natures of the participant egos. Such an electric mixture invariably exacerbates interpersonal conflict and misunderstanding. Yet when conflict is productively engaged it may breed “constructive discontent,” that is, fertile ground for intimate communication and creative collaboration.

Strategic and Empathic Phone Conference Calling

Feeling more settled after final electronic dialogue with the Conference Call Principal, I could address my latter decision to write about our contentious dialogue and to view the experience as a learning lab for improving conference calls. Part II, actually, has relevance for a variety of communication modes and mediums. Here are the “Top Ten Strategies for Successful Small Group Phone Conferencing”:

1. Take Time for Pre-Conference Call Planning. Clearly, as a consulting team we had not done sufficient preparation. In particular, when time is tight, having an agenda plus spelling out presentation time limits is critical. A “visible,” that is, an active and assertive Conference Call Director is essential to make sure the agenda is followed in a timely manner, including allotting the presenters specific time segments and quick feedback when a person is straying from time or topic constraints. If spontaneous engagement with the client breaks through a time boundary, you can always go with the flow…up to a critical point or two. And this leads to another essential planning arena – communication ground rules. Are colleagues encouraged to break in with questions or comments? Are differences in perspective to be aired privately or publicly? My bias is to allow for reasonable and respectful divergence, even if some discord may ensue. As noted from the outset of the essay and in George’s closing comments (both found in Part I), conflict is a spur to reflection, imagination, and clarification; productive conflict will invariably strengthen a product or process and, hopefully, even a partnership. And aligned with ground rules, do the different parties have specific roles and responsibilities? The answer is likely yes; do some review if not an actual role-play to clarify this “r & r.” Adaptation means integration of the forest and trees while allowing for creative bio-psycho-social diversity. As noted by Adam Gopnik, in his book about Darwin and Lincoln, Angels and Ages: “Repetition is the law of nature but variation is the rule of life.”

Which brings me to my philosophical foundation and team building variation on the traditional team mantra, “There’s no ‘I’ in Team”…There may be no ‘I’ in team but there are two ‘I’s in winning – Individuality and Interactivity. And these “I’s can “C.” Winning teams enable “Individual Courage-Creativity” and “Interactive Critique-Community!”

2. Be Aware of the Obvious Challenges of Phone Communication. On a non-Skype conference call many of the messaging cues and clues are not available. Pacing of speech, volume, inflection, tone, exaggeration, pausing, clearing the throat, etc. are all important nonverbal markers; they can’t fully compensate, however, for the lack of visual data, such as facial expressions, hand gestures, and overall body language. Again, achieving congruity between message sent and received becomes more challenging. Some clear implications: a) use concrete and descriptive images rather than abstract or overly conceptual language, e.g., I recall a manager trainee’s phrase describing the effects of major organizational restructuring: “I once had a career path, then this boulder fell from the sky and crushed it.” Well, you may not want to be overly dramatic, but being vivid and visual gets your message across and b) consider this on point, no “b.s.” variation of the KISS mantra when it comes to phone presentations: Be Smart – Keep It Simple and Short!

3. Find “Small” and Meaningful Areas of Personal and Cultural Connection. Especially when time is limited and there is little opportunity for casual chatting, seize an opportunity for that personal “touch,” e.g., my connecting with the VC around our common ties to Stony Brook University. Here’s another connector: While I hadn’t been conscious of this factor during the call, it’s possible that geo-cultural diversity also supported or, at least, influenced my bold interjection during Allen’s “run-on” presentation. Both my colleagues have southern roots; I’m pretty sure the VC has a northern background. Perhaps placing greater value on the social graces, southerners, in general, may be a bit more accommodating, less impatient, in this situation; “Yankees” tend to be more comfortable with (or at least used to) more abrupt interaction. (And the southerner may feel a greater sense of injury and injustice in the face of such effrontery.) Of course, such untested intuitions and generalizations should be used very carefully and sparingly when exercising strategy.

In similar fashion, be careful of assumptions. For example, Allen concluding that he obviously didn’t need to pause or check in with the VC because her paraphrase captured key points of his presentation, is speculation at best. Just as easily, one might surmise that she had a chance to test her basic understanding, a relief to all parties. Allen now had some confirmation that they were on a common page. Perhaps this knowledge, along with my jumping in, helped Allen wrap up sooner rather than later.

4. Connect to Pain and Passion Using Client’s Words and Language. There’s an urban myth that the meaning of a message is mostly influenced by nonverbal dimensions. Don’t buy it. Words, grammar, and jargon, that is, semantics – “the study of how meaning in language is created by the use and interrelationships of words, phrases, and sentences” (Encarta Dictionary) -- matter…especially when we can (or cannot or do not) speak the language of the other party. When the VC mentioned her concern about the existence of “silos” or barriers between departments in her division, my sharing a story about helping a military brigade remove the same at a pre-deployment/leadership retreat clearly hit home. Conversely, out of frustration, telling Allen that “he was shooting himself in the foot” was a poor choice of words for having him hear my desired message: that a fairly lengthy, non-stop presentation, lacking “check-in” was diluting the accessibility and power of his verbal presentation. And the disruptive effect of my interjection (some would say “interruption”; see words count) was magnified by the conference call’s importance, tight time margins, and competitive milieu. When text is not placed in context, message sent will struggle to become message received.

5. Deliver Meaningful Messages in Organized Chunks. It often takes some forethought and planning for a message to be “short and simple” yet also “smart.” Several keys come to mind: a) try to establish what information is essential and what is of peripheral or secondary import; beware falling in love with your own pearls, b) make concise and clear connections and weave colorful associations or relations among relevant data, c) try to illustrate your ideas by telling a succinct story – whereby your conceptual content is framed by an emotional moral or message, and d) when possible, make unexpected, thought-provoking, imaginative, and playful (but probably not “off the wall”) connections, that is, follow the wit and wisdom of a renowned American humorist. According to Mark Twain, Wit is the sudden marriage of ideas which before their union were not perceived to have any relation.

The challenge of organizing meaningful messages is heightened, of course, when you are responding spontaneously to a question or feedback. Alas, too often when a communicator doesn’t receive “MS = MR” feedback, he or she thinks: “Well, let me try to connect or prove my point with another story…and, if necessary, then another.” When connection is up in the air, if the presenter is sufficiently confident, the best strategy is to put on the brakes and check in with the target of your message.

6. Learn to Pause and Check In. In a "T n T" – Time-Numbers-Technology – driven and distracted world, communicators often feel they have to cram in the info as time and attention spans are often limited. Alas, providing your audience with a lengthy, seemingly endless laundry list almost assures that key issues and ideas will be lost in the verbiage. Might we say that the trees will get lost in the forest? Learning to pause, to segment or chunk your message tends to help the receiver catch the gist – details and big picture – without fumbling the ideas, intentions, or implications. (The communicational analogy might be writing concisely, using short and to the point paragraphs.) Momentary breaks from the back and forth also allow the parties to ponder and posit new possibilities. Now active listening may morph into mutually creative sharing and listening.

And surely, another vital reason to check in is receiving feedback, that is, to: a) gain insight as to what degree your intended message was actually received, b) determine the extent to which the receiver is on a similar wavelength and psychologically onboard and, most important, c) discover or, at least, begin to uncover any and all listener unspoken agendas, objections or concerns about the sender’s posited or perceived position, plan, or philosophy; bottom line – are you getting closer to achieving that elusive problem-solving partnership? When social-psychology research confirms that “attributional bias” (making questionable, fictional, or fallible judgments or explanations about another’s or one’s own motivations, intentions, and actions) is the interpersonal-perceptual norm, checking in becomes essential for effective and efficient communication and collaboration.

One technique for affirming “MS = MR” involves paraphrasing or repeating the other's message in the person's words or in your own distillation. In essence, my interruption provided the VC the space-time opportunity to paraphrase. Especially if a sender has conveyed a significant amount of information or complex instructions, it's wise to say, "I know I just said a lot. Would you mind paraphrasing back (or putting in your own words) what you heard?" Again, the motive is not to catch the other but to have both parties on the same page, and ultimately to use common ground as a springboard for synergistic dialog.

7. Be Conscious of “Hot Buttons” and Exaggerated Sensitivity. A hot button is a psychic issue or complex of emotions that get triggered in reaction to another’s communication or behavior. And by definition, it doesn’t take much for an overly sensitive or immature ego/button to be pushed beyond its pain or shame limit and for the “injured” or “insulted” party to self-righteously push back. Clearly, one of my “hot buttons” relates to sensitivity to other’s pain or, at least, the perception of their pain. (To my chagrin, there’s also the possibility of projecting my own pain onto the other party). Hopefully the former contributed to my interjecting on behalf of the VC. But here’s another and possibly related smoking trigger: I’m talking with someone making a point or, more likely, trying to explain or justify his or her behavior. I then acknowledge their message, which occurs reflexively through a variety of facial cues, with or without verbal accompaniment. However, out of a desire to further rationalize their intentions (likely a mask for their own insecurity or, for example, feelings of guilt), this individual begins to reiterate or unnecessarily elaborate the same point. Now I’m getting edgy, in all senses of the word. I then may cut them off with a somewhat hastily reassuring “I get it” or, if necessary, I quickly and perhaps curtly paraphrase the gist of their message. I don’t know if this pattern merely reflects momentary frustration or a composite of Type A tendencies and impatience, attention deficit, and/or a belief that my esteem is being skewered: “Hey, don’t you think I’m smart enough to get it the first time.” (A still lingering judgmental mother’s voice may be operating here.) And, of course, the “hot button” pitfalls are only exacerbated on a visually “cue-less” phone call.

8. Listen to Feedback; Don’t Simply Launch. It’s hard to listen above your own psychic noise. The problem is that the subterranean static interferes with an ability to objectively assess whether the sender’s message was a reasonable or acceptable missive or intended as a dismissive aside or demeaning dart. Clearly, message heard may not have been message delivered. And even if the intent was self-centered or hostile, do we have to respond in kind?

But alas, it’s just about midnight; the counterstrike missile is on the launching pad and it’s too late to abort the countdown. Not surprisingly, hot buttons are directly wired to your primitive brain and a flashing and fiery tongue. Again, guilty as charged: my conscious concern for the VC’s receptor state and about Allen not connecting with the client was obscured by my excitable rhetoric which, as you may recall, was, “shooting yourself in the foot.” Stress Doc heal thyself. I need to take my own medicinal mantra. Don’t just count to ten…Count to ten and check within. That is, to replace a reaction with an integrated head and heart response, I must recognize existing pain, take responsibility for personal vulnerability and hyper-sensitivity, along with some immaturity, and begin mentally massaging my own “hot button”…even in the heat of battle. Hopefully, this will disarm the need or desire for a reactive strike; perhaps now all parties can build bridges not blow them up or slowly burn them.

9. Is an Existential Decision Really On the Line? In a seminal article, “The Four Faces of Anger,” written in the ‘90s (email for the article), I also noted the “Four Angry ‘I’s”: we tend to have an angry response (constructive) or angry reaction (destructive) when we perceive another’s communications or actions as being unjust, injurious (or insulting), or invasive, and we have the intention to do something about the above injustices, injuries, insults, and/or invasions. And this aggressive energy pours out when the issue stirs our “passion.”

Passion! What does it evoke? Intensity, heat, steaminess…the “s”-word: “soap opera?” No, of course it’s sex? Actually, we in Washington, DC know the “s”-word for passion…It is “Senator.” (Or it was until Bill Clinton ruined my joke.) Interestingly, if you have a good dictionary the “s”-word for “passion” is neither sex nor senator…it’s “suffering,” as in the Passion Play. This relates to the sufferings of Jesus or, more generically, to the sufferings of a martyr. (Imagine all this time I never knew my Jewish mother was such a passionate woman!)

Actually, the best free association I’ve heard to the word “passion” (from a workshop audience member) has been “Rosa Parks.” Which inspires speculation around the connection among “suffering,” “passion” and being a powerful leader or motivator? For me it’s an individual who recognizes personal and social wrongs, feels their own and others’ pain, (or, at least, has a low threshold for “constructive discontent”), and is capable of learning from and being motivated by past inequalities and injustices, without being a slave to self-righteous retribution. And of, course, this knowledgeable, determined, and principled individual is willing to take a courageous stand in the present – even if by sitting down – in the face of adversity or danger.

However, as depicted on my “Four Faces of Anger Model,” there’s a fine line between constructive “Passion” and damaging “Rage.” So when I broke in on Allen’s presentation was I responding to a higher calling or was my empathic pain more subjective than objective, was increasing frustration polluting Allen’s space and our team image? It may be hard to predict whether you will be seen as hero or villain or both. You may have to do a quick “hot button” survey, decide if you can trust your heart and gut, assess risk and reward, for example, are you willing to make a precarious high dive, and are you prepared to face the consequences. Still, depending on the circumstances, there is often a saving grace. Phone call antagonists have the potential to genuinely grapple with the conflict, if not face to face, then at least voice to voice.

10. Don’t Forget to Debrief. Certainly the wisest move I made during this contentious conference call was asking for a debriefing session upon the VC’s exit. I realized George and Allen needed to vent their anger and that as the initiator of the conflict it was my responsibility to carefully listen to their angst and arguments. Do I wish I had been more patient and measured in my reaction-response? Absolutely! Alas, I’m not a saint. However, I’m savvy enough to know and apply some “hands on” research: allowing people to question or challenge your actions, plans, or point of view, to say “you’re wrong” and “I’m right” (and to feel they have been genuinely heard; again, I fell short here), that is, to encourage their freedom to disagree and be contrary, before you “set them straight,” actually has a counterintuitive result: enabling others to exercise their difference in a conflict situation often helps the antagonist move closer to your original position. As I’ve been known to say:

If you can allow people who say, “Yes, but”
To rebut
Even if they may be a pain in the…
(But you know what I mean)
Then we may get them to say, “But, yes!”

And in similar fashion, my having a chance to go “back and forth” with my “teammates” allowed me to send a more humble and strategic follow-up email to George, which evoked the desired result – George’s text reply: You are still part of the team. Disagreement and conflict will only strengthen our final process and product.

Closing Summary

I suspect the conference call conflict and tough debrief gave each one of us plenty of food for thought, as well as fertile ground for cultivating some new insights and perspective, including some common understanding. As endings often replicate beginnings, I can’t think of a better way to close this essay than by returning to the Part I opening quote from John Dewey, a pragmatic philosopher and “Father of American Public Education”: Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It shocks us out of sheep-like passivity. It instigates to invention and sets us at noting and contriving. Conflict is the sine qua non of reflection and ingenuity.

To productively grapple with the dynamics of phone conference calling and to respect and authentically connect with even contentious parties, try engaging with these “Top Ten Communication Strategies”:
1. Take Time for Pre-Conference Call Planning
2. Be Aware of the Obvious Challenges of Phone Communication
3. Find “Small” and Meaningful Areas of Personal and Cultural Connection
4. Connect to Pain and Passion Using Client’s Words and Language
5. Deliver Meaningful Messages in Organized Chunks
6. Learn to Pause and Check In
7. Be Conscious of “Hot Buttons” and Exaggerated Sensitivity
8. Listen to Feedback; Don’t Simply Launch
9. Is an Existential Decision Really On the Line?
10. Don’t Forget to Debrief

These skills and strategies, tools and techniques will strengthen your communication presence, whatever the medium or message and will help one and all…Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote speaker and "Motivational Humorist & Team Communication Catalyst" known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN programs for both government agencies and major corporations. A training and Critical Incident/Grief Intervention Consultant for the National EAP/Wellness Company, Business Health Services in Baltimore, MD, the Doc is also leading “Stress, Team Building and Humor” programs for various branches of the Armed Services. Mark is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of Anger. See his award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" -- -- called a "workplace resource" by National Public Radio (NPR). For more info on the Doc's programs or to receive his free e-newsletter, email

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