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Would you use an automatic mute button in virtual meetings?


We are more connected than ever with the ability to conduct virtual meetings. In seconds, we can FaceTime, Teams, or Zoom with one individual or hundreds. Before this technology, we would have to sit face-to-face in a conference room, feeling the meeting's pulse as we engage time in a “worthy” subject. One thing that hasn’t changed in this meeting transformation is that the meeting still maintains the ability for individuals to speak on top of each other. But with the virtual meeting, we could solve it. But should we?


Teaching kids how to not speak on top of each other and take turns speaking is something many of us were taught by our parents or, as parents, we attempt to teach our children. We strive to raise our kids to not interrupt and teach them early on to wait their turn to give feedback on a subject. We practiced teaching “turn-taking” by asking our children to twist a pointer and middle finger together and raise their hand in the air when they have something to say. As they sat in silence with their single hand politely raised (at least some of the time), this visual aid allowed us to give them a platform to speak while acknowledging their patience to contribute to the conversation. This healthy conditioning slowed down their thoughts to speak intelligently versus hastily interrupting someone else. In virtual meetings, we can raise our hands, but there is no coded feature to ensure that we are not interrupting. Should we?


Sure, we can mute ourselves in a virtual meeting, but there isn’t a tool that automates a muting on everyone else when someone else is talking. We have the mute-all function and the ability to select the meatball icon to mute an individual when they have forgotten to mute themselves in a loud airport terminal. We even the ability to have virtual meetings to prevent anyone else from talking except the presenter. But should we go all in with the nuclear button to prevent anyone from speaking on top of anyone while the meeting is being conducted?


Pick up your cell phone, and look at a recent text string. What we have here is a platform where only one person can message at a time. One person texts a single or multi-layer communication, then the next person does. Back and forth, we communicate with a single individual or group of individuals. You may have caught yourself abusing the sequencing of taking turns with text-bombing. Or you may slow down the communication to write a long text to poetically describe a point of view as the other is continuing to send a text to make their point heard. Here, we are all forced into a single-speaker linear sequence that has coded tools to put the communication in order. The sequence is constrained by the speed of typing, the speed of your connection, and the speed of your reading. The technology is proven to work as you scroll vertically through your text stream, and you will see the distinct order of texts. Never will you see a text at the same time. But why is the technology not in a virtual meeting and enabled within the audio functionality?


Look at the transcript generated from a virtual meeting to show the exact order of the meeting, along with all of the interruptions. It will look like your text strings but here you will see the interruptions. Regardless of the interruptions, there remains is a distinct order in the transcript. Virtually meetings transcribe multiple people talking in transcribing by calling out the interruptions with asterisks. But if we have the coding ability to recognize people speaking on top of each other, should we consider using this output to toggle a mute button?

OVERLAPPED SPEECH: Overlapped speech (when both speakers talk at the same time) is marked with an ASTERISK “*” at the beginning and at the end of each speaker’s overlapped utterance. For example:
<0:01.362> hello, how *are you*?
<0:02.118> *I am fine* and you?
This transcription example indicates that “are you” (from speaker 1) and “I am fine” (from speaker 2) occurred at the same time. - Karla Batres

What would happen if the muting feature could be toggled to create a choreographed sequence of a single speaker? Would we listen more precisely? Would we listen more tentatively versus depressurizing our thought at the first sign of someone else taking a pause? We could try and establish manual rules to enforce this in our organizations without a programmable feature, but do the emotions of an organization have the ability to follow? I doubt it. The United States Senate rules committee tries to manage this with rules, but we have all seen how that goes. We practice these types of rules ourselves in our meetings, but with 300 million virtual meetings occurring per day, different levels of rudeness, and the variability of bandwidths, we are doomed for failure to police this ourselves.

Thereafter no Senator shall be entitled to speak in all more than one hour on the measure, motion, or other matter pending before the Senate, or the unfinished business, the amendments thereto, and motions affecting the same, and it shall be the duty of the Presiding Officer to keep the time of each Senator who speaks. - United States Senate Rules Committee

I think, wait, I know that I would at least test out this settings feature if it became available. Like many I would assume, I would be the type to see how it would work in a routine and a non-routine meeting. With the feature turned on and the analytics to review the results, I would be curious to correlate the collaboration of the meeting’s aim to how often individuals interrupt at another’s breath with a rebuttal. I would be curious to see the analytical reports that show who had the floor the most, who was best at taking turns, and who didn’t get a chance to say anything. This feature would provide a litany of additional information to understand the effectiveness of a conducted meeting. However, the feature would become a fad and soon be left turned off.


Making this feature a standard or a requirement would be the death of collaboration and disrupt the emotional capital that meetings should encompass. A business partner of mine has the saying, “There should be no such thing as a happy meeting.” We need good dialogue, we need someone to call BS on a fictitious data point or an unsupported position. However, we could all work on practicing being more polite and observing our own personal floor time as if this feature was there.


Regardless if this feature is ever enabled or not, the virtual meeting should remain a collaborative system in which positions and their interpretations are determined by unrestricted communication between the meeting’s attendees. The exchange of dialogue should remain fluid as a voluntary agreement between the individuals within the meeting. Similarly to the free market economy, the effectiveness of the conversation should remain an interpretation of the meeting’s barters and trade. The interpretation of this conversation influences the culture and effectiveness of future communications by its favorable or non-favorable intentions. So give me the option big-tech, let me try it out for a few months, and then let me turn it off for good.



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