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One simple technique to improve online meetings

Thanks to COVID-19, the prevalence of online meetings has dramatically increased. But unfortunately these are often unsuccessful. In this episode we explore one simple technique to make online meetings more successful, which is strangely connected to people pulling on a rope!

One aspect that is often overlooked with online meetings is the role that each attendee plays in ensuring the meeting’s success. Over a hundred years ago, Max Ringelmann, a French architectural engineer, made an important discovery. In 1913 he described an effect that helps explain why online meetings today are often so unsuccessful. 

Ringelmann asked a team of people to pull on a rope. He then asked each individual to pull on the same rope. What he noticed was that when people worked as individuals, they actually put more effort into pulling than when they worked as a team. This is now referred to as the Ringelmann effect. It turns out that the bigger the group, the less responsibility each individual feels to ensure success. If a person does not feel critical to the success of a mission, it is easy to tune out and put in less effort—because they feel that no one will notice anyway. 

Unfortunately in online meetings and good old fashioned teleconferences, the Ringelmann effect is magnified. When you are not actually in the physical room to help ‘pull on the rope’ for a meeting, you might feel less engaged and less motivated to listen and participate. The less you feel needed, the more distracted you become, and the less you contribute to the meeting. And the less you give, the less fulfilling the experience seems to be when it has finished. So how can we minimise the Ringelmann effect and make our online meetings more productive?

Well in a recent Harvard Business Review article, Sarah Gershmann suggests that it is not through greater participation, but through more thoughtful and targeted listening. She says that in a virtual context, listening needs to be active, participatory, and helpful. Sarah proposes five strategies to help us listen more effectively in our next online meeting. 

  1. Define our value beforehand. Take the time before the meeting starts to clarify the purpose of the meeting and what we might add and also get from it. What is the most useful information we have? What do we want to contribute? Determining this beforehand will help us listen more carefully to the content, sifting out what’s important for us. 
  2. Acknowledge previous statements. Sometimes people jump in too quickly to make their point, without first listening or acknowledging what has already been said. As a result, other people may repeat their earlier points, as they are not feeling that they have been heard or understood. This is often magnified in a virtual meeting, where people easily talk over each other. Active listening can help overcome this. Before we raise a new point, it is good to reiterate what we have already heard and how our idea adds to it.  This not only helps the conversation, but it makes it more likely that others will hear what we have to say. As Sarah says, ‘people are more likely to listen if they first feel heard’.
  3. Connect the dots. Often leading an online meeting is challenging. Participants often provide diverse, sometimes unrelated comments, and it is tough for the facilitator to keep the conversation running smoothly. Again, our ability to listen will help. We need to listen carefully to participants’ contributions and see how we can reflect on what we have heard to help move the conversation forward. Sarah gives this example… let’s say that during an online meeting we notice that several participants mention that a client is frustrated. We might then say, ‘I’ve heard several people say that the client seems frustrated. I wonder if anyone has any thoughts on why this frustration is happening right now?’ Notice that we are not actually giving any new information but by listening first and then connecting the dots, we can help the other participants understand the larger dynamic and guide the conversation in a productive direction. 
  4. Bring our attention back. Despite our best efforts to listen, it is natural for our minds to wander during the meeting. It happens to even the best of us. As is done in meditation, try to quietly note the distracting thought and then return our attention to the meeting. It can be helpful to have a notepad next to us, and write down some of these wandering thoughts. This is like the Rabbit paddock that we sometimes use when facilitating physical meetings. This allows us to put the thought ‘somewhere’ so that we can return to it after the meeting has ended. 
  5. Don’t be afraid to ask a question. Sometimes when we get distracted and then return our focus to the meeting, we may find that we are a little lost, as perhaps the conversation has moved in a new direction and we missed the transition. When this happens, we might say, ‘I apologise but I’ve lost track of the conversation. Can someone help me understand why we’re now focusing on xyz please?” And this is good because it may also help others in the meeting, as it’s likely we are not the only ones who are confused! 

So in conclusion, during online meetings we often feel that we have to fight to be heard, lest our voice gets lost in the noise. It seems counterintuitive, but
one of the best ways to be heard is to be a good listener. Thoughtful, active listening can raise our status in the conversation, help us better connect with others, and make it more likely that others will want to listen to us. As Sarah says, active listening is a precious gift that we can give to our colleagues and it can provide a meaningful connection during a time when people need it most. This is the one simple technique we can all use to make our online meetings more successful.

Well, you’ve read our thoughts, now we’d like to hear yours! Add a comment below the blog post and tell us about your experiences with using active listening in meetings, including any tips and further ideas about it. We don’t want this to be just a one-way conversationjoin in by sharing your thoughts and ideas with us! 

If you found this episode useful, then share it with a friend or colleague. And remember to subscribe to our newsletter if you’d like to know when new episodes are available. 

All the best until we meet again!


Gershman, S. (2020). Stop zoning out in Zoom meetings. Harvard Business Review. Available online.  

Ringelmann, M. (1913). ‘Recherches sur les moteurs animés: Travail de l’homme’ [Research on animate sources of power: The work of man], Annales de l’Institut National Agronomique, 2nd series, vol. 12, pages 1-40. Available online (in French).

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Richard Wakelin
Richard Wakelin
2 years ago

Hi Denise and John, another wonderful gift, thank you. A question I have is that many meetings now are a combination of remote and in person. I participate in a number of meetings where the majority of attendees are in person, around a table and, two or three are joining via zoom or teams. Its very hard being the remote participant when a group get on a roll around a particular point/idea. Do you have tips for the participants (remote and the group) and tips for the facilitator? I recently attended a symposium where it was a combination of in-person… Read more »

2 years ago

Hi Denise and John I agree with you that pre meeting giving participants a strong purpose and direction for the meeting helps to focus everyone. Trying to facilitate an online meeting is even more difficult not to let that one person dominate the discussion without butting in and feeling rude. Keeping the discussion to point and keep to time I find harder to do with virtual meetings. I feel the big thing is that you don’t have the benefit of being able to read peoples body language as in a face to face meeting. Keep up the good work –… Read more »

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