Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Sept. 1, 2020.
It's common for people to zone out during virtual meetings—but there are strategies to get back on track. Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Sarah Gershman, president of Green Room Speakers, shares five tips on how to stop zoning out and start listening more effectively.
Why we zone out during virtual meetings
According to Gershman, we tend to zone out during virtual meetings because of a phenomenon called the "Ringelmann Effect."
Gershman explains the phenomenon originated with Max Ringelmann, an architectural engineer who in 1913 conducted an experiment asking a group of people to individually and together pull on a rope.
Ringelmann found that when people worked alone, they put more effort into pulling on the rope than they did if they worked on a team. Ringelmann found the larger the team, the less each member of the team feels responsible to give enough effort to ensure success, Gershman writes.
The Ringelmann Effect is amplified during virtual meetings, Gershman writes. "When you are not in the room to help 'pull the rope' for a meeting, you might feel less motivated to listen and participate," she writes. "The less you feel needed, the more distracted you will become, and the less you will give to the meeting."
5 tips to stop zoning out during meetings
To combat the Ringelmann Effect—and help foster engaging, productive meetings—Gershman offers five tips to stay focused.
1. Determine what you want out of the meeting beforehand
Before the meeting starts, figure out what the purpose of the meeting is and what you want to take away from it, Gershman writes. Even if you're not critical to the meeting or don't need to present anything, identify what you hope to learn, as doing so will help you listen more attentively.
2. Acknowledge what has already been said
People often jump into conversations without first listening to or acknowledging what's been said before, which can result in points being repeated and lead to a disjointed meeting, Gershman writes. Before you start a new topic, Gershman recommends reiterating whatever you just heard or a point you're going to build on, as this helps propel the conversation and makes it more likely others will listen to what you're saying—since they themselves will feel heard.
3. Help others see the bigger picture
If you're leading a virtual meeting, listen carefully to what each participant contributes and then determine how you can reflect on what's been said to further the conversation, Gershman writes. By doing so, you can help other participants see the bigger picture and you can productively guide the conversation.
4. Refocus your attention
It's natural for someone's mind to wander during a meeting, Gershman writes. When you have a distracting thought pop up, Gershman recommends writing it down on a pad of paper. This practice "allows you to put the thought 'somewhere' so that you can return to it later, after the meeting has ended," Gershman writes.
5. When you do lose your train of thought, ask questions
If you do get distracted during a meeting, don't be afraid to ask a question to clarify something you may be confused about, Gershman writes. For example, Gershman writes that you could say, "I apologize. I lost track of the conversation for a moment. Would someone please help me understand why we are now focusing on …" This will not only help you better understand what's being talked about, but it could also help others in the meeting, as you may not be the only one who's lost.
Staying focused during a virtual one can be difficult, but "one of the best ways to be heard is to be a good listener," Gershman writes. "Thoughtful, active listening raises your status in the conversation and makes it more likely that others will want to sit up and listen to you. Perhaps most importantly, active, thoughtful listening is a precious gift to your colleagues. It provides meaningful connection during a time and place when people need it most" (Gershman, Harvard Business Review, 5/4).