Invite all the available senses

These meeting platforms we use are not yet, for the most part, designed for creative work. They privilege talking heads, and gathering together easily gets stuck at being about the content of what is said. We want it to be more experiential, more dimensional. What else is possible?

Things to try on: tools, activities and resources

  • Notice: With sound and video on, intentionally notice all the things you can notice about what others are communicating. Pay attention to the cues that are harder to see — their body language when they are talking, the times when they are looking at themselves and attending to the persona that they would like you to be seeing (who is that person?)…. cues we have in real life that someone has finished their thought or wants to speak are less easy for us to see in Zoom. We miss those little breaths-in of the others, the way they fidget in their chair. People talk on top of each other and the green square stutters around the group.
  • Listen: Turn off the video and just listen to each other. The simplicity (and relief) of being heard and not seen can free people up. Going to audio-only also uses less bandwidth, so if someone is on unsteady wifi it can help equalize the connections. This can also be useful in rehearsal, for script reading or discussion.

In one of our labs with a new group of people, we had a small closeness breakthrough. When we turned off our cameras and met in audio only, people who had been quiet were suddenly talkative, and the awkward pauses that are such a big part of video conversations disappeared. It was like we were all of a sudden at a sleepover, talking in the dark. — Veda Hille

  • Get some distance.

Turn off your video, find a comfortable place to lie down, make sure you have a window or a doorway — somewhere you can look out, or down a hallway and see a distance. Because our brains, when they’re just functioning in one mode, can only go for so long, because we aren’t trained in this yet. We haven’t built up the stamina for it. — Andrea Nann

  • Watch: Turn off the audio and just watch each other. What do you notice that you didn’t when you were thinking about what people were saying?

There’s a quote, “seeing is listening.” I feel that that’s something that hearing people don’t do. They operate as though they weren’t seeing the world and only operating through an auditory mode. And for me, I feel that hearing people have lost some of their empathy.

— Dawn J Birley

  • Actively engage with silence: Working online has prioritized speaking as the default way to communicate. What happens when you make a meeting as silent as possible?

In one of our teenage labs, Andrea Nann led our session through colour coded cards that each signified a different action. Instead of vocalizing her instructions, she would hold a card up, inviting us to participate: Yellow = Unmute/Mute your mic. Blue = Take time to write about your experience (of something we had just done together). Pink = Slowly return your attention to the screen OR Softly allow your gaze to move away from the screen, extending outward to take in the environment where you are situated. Green = Share a gesture with the group. Not having a “voice” of authority shifted the tone of hierarchical structure and brought about a new collective experience of being together. — Erum Khan

  • Touch, taste and smell: The senses that you can’t have in common when you are working remotely are touch, smell and taste. Somehow these are the most intimate too. Make a point of talking about them.

There are all sorts of cues and body language you get being in a room together. I even believe there’s a smell that we don’t even register, you know, and so all those senses, I feel, are muted, online… so you have to find other ways to activate them.

— Christine Brubaker

  • Remember the body: Put on some pants and get up off of your chair. See each other’s whole bodies. Speaking and moving at the same time has a different flavour than just sitting and talking:

If you’re moving and speaking at the same time there’s a different quality of your voice that becomes what we call embodied voice, and embodied voice can reach participants in an embodied experience.  — Andrea Nann

For me it’s so much about whether I can move and be in my own space with you virtually at the same time. For instance, if you and I are both sitting at our tables, I can get up and move around and go like: oh, what about if we do this, for this moment here. So it’s about having a camera, and a space, and a room, where I can go: oh my god! What happens if I went down on my knees here, and we looked up at the sky…? Literally I am on my feet all the time. So if we’re working remotely in the future, and we can actually give people spaces to work in who need them, that’s a whole different opportunity.

— Christine Brubaker