The Tyranny of Terrible Conference Calls

By Julian Griggs, who will be presenting Alchemy of Group Facilitation in Vancouver on Nov 20, -22, 2017.

Many teams spend hours every month participating in poorly managed, ineffective and frustrating conference calls. If you need a reminder of just how painful that can be, check out Tripp and Tyler’s “A Conference Call in Real Life”:

Conference calls are like any other meeting but they are harder to manage because of the lack of visual cues. Paradoxically, although conference calls require more careful preparation that face-to-face meetings, they are often undertaken more casually and without much forethought. Moreover, because we have experienced so many bad conference calls, we easily come to accept that mediocrity is the best we can do. It is not.Conference calls do not need to be this way. Here are a few conference call tips to help your team avoid frustration and improve performance:

  1. Consider something else: Ask yourself whether the objectives of your call might be better achieved by a series of one-on-one discussions, followed by circulation of written summary.
  2. Be very attentive to scoping: Make sure you are having the right conversation. Be precise about objectives.
  3. Set ground rules: Reach agreement in advance on shared expectations for behaviour during a conference call, particularly with regard to ‘multi-tasking,’ calling in from moving vehicles, while walking, or when in noisy coffee shop. Ask people to turn off e-mail during the call.
  4. Be clear what ‘start time’ means: Ask all participants to dial in 3-5 minutes ahead, so that they are ready to begin at the scheduled meeting start time.
  5. Use Icons: When some people are in the room and others on the phone, make paper cut-outs of anyone not physically present, as a visual reminder.
  6. Mute: Ask participants to use the mute button when they are not speaking (and ensure they know how to turn on/off the mute quickly.
  7. Tech Support: Decide ahead of time who will step in to run the meeting if the assigned facilitator drops off the call and who will step away to troubleshoot technology glitches.
  8. Make the agenda work: It is likely that several agendas will get you there—avoid debating what is the one absolutely best way when several would work just fine.
  9. List participants: Make a list of all participants and keep it handy during the discussion. Mark-off against the list when checking for alignment.
  10. Say your names before each comment: This helps people keep track of who said what.
  11. Rounds of comments: Use occasional rounds to ensure everyone is engaged and has the chance to speak.
  12. Don’t set low expectations: Just because time is short, there is no excuse for a group to contravene its own ground rules and sacrifice its effectiveness. Don’t inadvertently set a pattern of accepting the inevitability of poor conference calls.
  13. Use evaluations: Invite participants to share information about how well the conference calls are working at the end of the call, or via e-mail. Use this as a platform for progressive improvement.

Join Julian in Vancouver for Alchemy of Group Facilitation on Nov 20-22, 2017

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Julian GriggsIAF certified, Julian Griggs specializes in the collaborative decision making process and is a regular trainer and facilitator at Hollyhock. Over the last 22 years, Julian has designed and facilitated hundreds of multi-party planning processes, workshops, meetings, strategic planning initiatives and conferences for corporate, government, First Nations and not-for-profit sector clients in Canada, the US and

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