To see or not to see?

On a personal level, I find visual-virtual very difficult. Two or three years ago, I spent eighteen months exploring this issue and trying to acclimatise to using video interfaces. The inquiry led me to conclude that I’m less able to do good work in this medium. Since then, whenever I’ve been asked to use Zoom, Skype or Teams, I’ve declined. I framed this as a personal limitation and felt awkward each time I requested an audio-only conversation. I wondered if I was passing my ‘use-by’ date.

In the context of the restrictions introduced to combat Covid, this stance had greater ramifications than I could have imagined. Yet I do not regret it. And whenever I explain my position to others, I find that I’m not alone in my experience after all. This led me to explore the roots of the exhaustion that so often accompanies or follows screen-based meetings, an experience prevalent enough to have acquired a name: Zoom fatigue. What I found offered food for thought.

My general stance is that I don’t believe any virtual channel is intrinsically better than another, but each does create different conditions for conversation. As a dialogue practitioner, it feels important to raise awareness of this because understanding the attributes of each environment allows us to consider how we might best support the conversation we intend to have.

When people need to talk but cannot be in the same location, what influences the quality of their collective experience?

A key consideration is sensory data. When we meet face-to-face, we’re able to see and hear others without external filters, and we also tune into the quality of their energy. These inputs are types of vibration, discerned across spaces.

We also potentially have access to sensory data that requires proximity. The most obvious example is touch, but taste and smell also fall into this category. Such proximity data is automatically absent when we ‘meet’ others through technological interfaces.

When we gather virtually, what influences our sensory experience?

While visual and audio data are present in video calls, we don’t access them in real time due to delays in the transmission process. While distortions in what we hear are less than those in what we see, choirmaster Gareth Malone says the internet is ‘just not quick enough’ to synchronise sound and voices.

Further, light and noise travel at different speeds. Even with good bandwidth and uninterrupted service they are asynchronous, which means we have to work hard to process what is taking place. When there are disruptions to service, visuals ‘hang’ or become pixelated and voices echo or cut out. This adds to the load of making sense of our experience.

Energetic data also becomes elusive across platforms. Even in proximity, we have to pay attention to notice the subtleties of the non-verbal cues and vibes that we pick up almost peripherally. When our experience of others is multiple ‘heads’ on screen, this kind of data easily gets lost in translation (bandwidth and speed again) and in the sheer volume and complexity of visual stimulation.

As we choose a context for a conversation, we may overlook something important: energetic data is more readily available in audio-only calls, albeit in a different guise. Without visuals, there is (quite literally) less going on, and we naturally prioritise listening, hearing and sense-making. In sound and voice, we can perceive factors such as tone, pitch and timbre alongside attributes such as confidence, diffidence, mood and intensity. Variations in these qualities can be nuanced and layered. When there’s a lot going on, whether in a room or on a call, this richness is easy to miss.

Audio data is central to conversations and kinaesthetic data is automatically excluded when distance is involved. Therefore, a key question for selecting the medium for an important conversation is: Will visual data enhance or limit the quality of our exchange? 

The answer will, of course, depend.

However, in asking the question we invite those involved to engage in shaping the container, or holding space, for the conversation, both practically and qualitatively. Collectively, we begin to create the conditions for meaningful communication.


    • On a personal basis, what constitutes an optimal balance of sensory input to support you to hear others and yet not lose contact with yourself?
    • When next arranging a meeting, what steps might you take to create conditions that best support the conversation you need to have?
Written in May 2020


Companion piece for coaches and supervisors: Virtual containers

Containers, holding spaces for conversations: Holding conversations, a piece published in Weekly Leadership Contemplations

Listening and hearing: Dialogue and the art of thinking together, William Isaacs, p83-87

Virtual leadership, publications by Ghislaine Caulat

Zoom Fatigue, National Geographic, Julia Sklar, April 2020

The reason Zoom calls drain your energy, BBC, Manyu Jiang, April 2020