When was the last time you had a phone call? Maybe you called a parent, a friend, or a client. Recall the last time you had a conversation over the phone and ask yourself one question. When the other person was talking, did you push the mute button on your phone?
Most (if not all) modern smartphones give you the option to mute yourself when in a phone call, but there are very few situations in which we actually use it. Perhaps a second person is talking to you in real life and you need to pause the conversation. Maybe you have stepped away for a moment, or perhaps you are on hold and just want to be sure nobody can hear you while that waiting music plays. Whatever the case, if you’ve pressed the mute button on your phone during a conversation, you have a well-thought-out reason or you wouldn’t be on the call in the first place.
So then, why are we so quick to mute ourselves the instant we enter video call meetings in this new era of Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype, etc.?
The Case Against the Mute Button
I was an undergraduate learning assistant for a class at Michigan State University during the 2020-2021 school year, and one of the things that immediately killed most chances for engagement with the course material was that damn mute button. Everyone presses it by default out of fear of being the source of an odd or annoying noise. Any burp, hiccup, sneeze, vacuum in the background, dog barking, etc., felt way more impactful than it actually was.
The silence on video conferencing calls feels sacred, and asking a question or adding to the conversation becomes even more of an interruption as a result. But why do we approach this new age of interaction this way when that isn’t at all how meetings go in person? If someone were to sneeze in the middle of a conversation, we say, “Bless you,” and move on with our respective lives. There’s no way to push the mute button on a real life conversation, so why are we so attached to that little microphone button on Zoom?
In reality, this anxiety is nothing new. Many of us go through all aspects of life worried about how we come across to others. That said, muting ourselves on video calls means we often miss out on opportunities to collaborate and interact with information, as well as with each other. A lot of our meetings require conversation and interaction. When we give ourselves more barriers to participation it makes it just that much harder to be present.
However, undoing the effects of the mute button takes more than just asking everyone to unmute. There are a lot of varied and valid reasons someone could choose to opt out of talking. So, how do we foster better conversations in our online spaces?
Creating a Space Where Teams Feel Accepted
The answer, ultimately, is respect. An important part of creating an environment in which people feel comfortable unmuting is a space free of judgment where people feel respected. In asking that your team unmute, you are asking that everyone become comfortable with that experience. If they aren’t comfortable with you or other members of the team, you won’t get good collaboration, unmuted or not. Pay attention to your team and their familiarity with each other. Are they able to laugh together? Are there people who don’t get along with each other for some reason? These all will affect the success of your team in general and definitely will affect the way a completely unmuted Zoom meeting goes.
Additionally, pay attention to how you and your team treat questions of all kinds. Is there anyone who reacts quickly to questions rather than considering before responding? How do you respond to questions, especially ones you consider useless or a waste of your time? The major benefit of unmuting during Zoom meetings is the facilitation of questions and answers for smoother conversations. So, ensuring that people feel as though the team hears their questions and concerns, regardless of their validity, is crucial.
A natural result of treating Zoom meetings the same as in-person conversation is allowing for off-topic conversations. Humans, by our nature, love to form connections with each other when they find commonality. Embrace it! There are, of course limits, but don’t fear that you will not get things done. People aren’t 100% focused all the time in real life, so why should we expect the same on video calls? Let your team members be accountable for their own focus levels during meetings. Don’t punish them for looking distracted or creating conversation: that’s just part of being human.
However, it’s also important to acknowledge that not everyone can unmute. Perhaps their equipment emits a sound, or they don’t have access to a quiet space. Whatever the case, unmuting on video calls is only a successful practice if it doesn’t feel invasive. Ultimately, what is most important is that video meetings allow for engaged conversation to achieve a goal.
Unmute for Full Participation
One of my favorite learning experiences happened in 2019, one year before the pandemic. I was a freshman, taking Calc 2 in a random classroom at 6 p.m. It was January, so it was dark outside, and I expected the class to feel tired, quiet, and boring as a result. However, our teacher, a graduate student studying math at the university, had other plans. From the start, he would ask for full participation, for frequent questions, and for people to answer his questions, even when they weren’t sure of their answers. He repeated to us one phrase that has stuck with me since then.
“The worst thing you can be is wrong.”
This one line, repeated over and over, eventually created the best math class I ever took in my life. All my questions were answered, I was frequently wrong but never treated as stupid, and above all, I learned.
We can apply this to our online meetings as well. When it comes to any questions you have, any comments, anything you have to say, truly the worst thing you can be is wrong. Once we allow ourselves and our peers to get it wrong without judgment, we can unmute on Zoom, and have fully productive and healthy conversations. Just like that Calc 2 classroom on those cold winter days, we too can make these isolating spaces feel alive. So let’s take the plunge. Don’t push that tempting little button, and unmute ourselves on Zoom.