CCP 004—VISION MIX—Raw Feeds,” Roy Blumenthal

Nowadays, most of us are spending a lot more time on video calls than we ever have before. Video calls are a great way for us to connect, communicate, and collaborate across distances. They are also a great way for us to continuously stare at a computer all day as we multiply the effects of meeting fatigue, screen fatigue, and social isolation.

If we are careless, video calls can cause us to feel like computer zombies that struggle to feel the connection, belonging, and togetherness that we need to sustain ourselves and work effectively together. But if we are intentional, we can avoid some of the pitfalls of the medium and work with it to benefit our mental health and our team cohesion. Here are ten simple things we can do to make video calls more enjoyable and effective.

1. Take a Transition Moment

Right before a video, call we are often doing some other task on our computer. If we don’t take a moment to mindfully transition out of that task and into our video call, we will carry whatever emotional and mental posture we assumed to complete the previous task into our call. It’s the same as when we connect with someone in person. If we are in the middle of calculating spreadsheets and balancing budgets when our friend walks in the room, our interaction will have a different starting point than if we had put away our computer, walked out of our office, took a few moments to breathe, and met that friend in a park.

The trap with video calls is that it’s possible to transition from our previous task (which may involve no human connection) immediately into a meeting that requires us to relate to a person, and that person appears to us in the exact same place on our computer screen as the non-human things we were working with before. It a perfect recipe for us to relate to each other the same way we were relating to whatever tab we just had open. Needless to say, it isn’t the most pleasant experience for anyone involved.

One way to address this is to take a few minutes of quiet time, away from screens, before getting on a video call. Just taking a few breaths, feeling our bodies, and orienting our emotions to the people that we will be interacting with can make a world of difference. Not only does this help us release whatever we were experiencing and meet the new interaction with more freshness, it also signals to our nervous systems that we are engaging with people, not screens, which enables us to feel more connected to the people we are talking to. This connectivity supports our well-being and our ability to collaborate effectively in teams.

2. Check In as Humans

It always takes us a moment to fully arrive somewhere new. As we start our video call and begin to bring our attention to the people and tasks at hand, we often notice all sorts of thoughts and feelings arise. Some relate to the moment we are in, some relate to the past, and some relate to the future. When we express these things, we often feel more fully present. When we hear little snippets of each other’s lives, we often feel more connected; when we are transparent about what external things are impacting how we show up in a meeting, we often engender more compassion.

If you are going to have a video call about a specific topic, try taking a moment before diving into that topic to have everyone share a bit about themselves. Everyone could respond to a specific prompt, or just share whatever will help them feel more fully present in the space. This gives everyone a chance to arrive, feel more connected, and orient to the fact that they are engaging with a group of people with vulnerabilities, feelings, and lives, and not just a bunch of floating heads on a screen.

3. Prepare Your Windows

We all know how annoying it is when the person with whom we are trying to have a conversation keeps looking away to check their phone. Well, when we are on a video call, we don’t even need to look away to be distracted by a screen. When we have another window open during a video call, it’s almost as if we are holding our phone up right beside the other person’s head, just begging to be distracted. Even though all of us have been known to surf the internet or do other work during a video call, we all also know how obvious it is when someone is doing it and how much it disrupts the flow of the calls and leaves us feeling personally disconnected.

Try closing or minimizing all windows on your screen except for the video call and any documents you need for the call. If the documents you need in on a web browser, open a fresh window that only has what you need. It’s a little ritual that can help bring our attention to the meeting, and it makes it just a little less tempting to get distracted.

4. Adjust Your Screen Positioning

Your distance from your screen can have a big impact on you and the people you are on the call with. For yourself, you will have a different experience if your screen is occupying most of your field of vision, as opposed to being able to see both the screen and the non-screen world. Your fellow callers experience you differently if your image is filling up most of the little box they see on their screen, you are off in the distance, or you are just a head resting at the bottom of the screen with a bunch of empty space above you.

Try playing with your distance from the screen, the way the camera frames you, and even the angle at which you sit in relation to the screen. It can have a big influence on how connected we feel to ourselves and each other.

5. Hide Your Self View

Can you imagine having a conversation with someone while also looking in a mirror that was reflecting your every move? Would you feel more natural, or more self-conscious? Would you feel more or less connected to them?

When we have our little self-views up on video calls, that’s pretty much what we are doing. The self-view is great to make sure we are well positioned in front of the camera, but leaving it on throughout the call can have quite a bit of impact on our attention and our sense of connection with one another. Obviously, there’s no right or wrong way to do anything, but it’s definitely worth experimenting with your self-view and getting curious about why you make the choice you do.

6. Disrupt Your Computer Gaze

There is a certain way that we look at our computer, or any external object for that matter. That gaze often leaves us feeling disconnected and stuck in our heads, but it’s not too hard to shift it to become more present and available.

The trick is to switch between (1) using eyes to reach out and search and using eyes to receive and (2) making sight the primary sense and making hearing and feeling the primary senses.

You can try it right now. Pick an object and look at it as if it were something outside of you. Feel how far it is from you, how separate. Imagine there were little tendrils that emerged from your eyes to scan the thing. If you want to exaggerate it, look at it as if it were some confusing and unfamiliar puzzle to be solved. Notice what happens to the sensations in your body, heart, and mind while you do that. How does it feel familiar or different from the way you usually look at things, specifically at your computer?

Now, close your eyes or soften your gaze, and place your attention on your hearing. Notice all the sounds that arise. Notice how you effortlessly receive those sounds, almost as if they were occurring within you. Don’t try to figure out where spatially the sounds are coming from, just notice that you can do absolutely nothing and still receive the internal experience of the sound. Notice the impact on your body, mind, and emotions. What is different between this way of hearing, and the way of seeing you just experienced?

As you open your eyes, allow your vision to be as receptive as your hearing. Staying centered in yourself, you effortlessly receive the light as something arising in your visual field instead of as separate objects. It can help to refrain from fully focusing your eyes. As you do this, continue being aware of the sounds you are hearing and the feelings in your body.

When we are in this new posture, we are not only more able to feel calm and resourced in our bodies, but also more connected to each other. We can rest in ourselves and more fully receive and connect to the gestures, facial expressions, and sounds of each other. This is especially helpful on video calls when we may need a little extra mindfulness to achieve the experience of human connection that comes more naturally when our bodies are in the same room together.

7. Feel Your Body and Surroundings

It is really easy to get sucked into the computer zone and start experiencing ourselves as floating heads strapped into an electronic machine. This can often leave us feeling frenetic, cloudy, disoriented, and just generally weird. The gravity in that direction is even higher when we aren’t even stepping away from screens to talk to each other.

Everyone has their own practices for staying more balanced in their body and emotions. Here are a few that might be particularly useful in the context of video calls.

  1. Try keeping a hand on your belly, feeling the movement of your breath for the whole call. When you lose it, just come back to noticing the place where your hand meets your belly.
  2. Try keeping some of your attention on where your body is making contact with something below it. Might be your butt on the seat, or your feet on the ground.
  3. Make the space behind and around your computer beautiful and centering. Periodically look up from your screen and take in that pleasant sight.

8. Give Permission to Move

It is not natural for us to sit for an hour in one position staring straight ahead. Neither is it natural for us to have entire conversations looking directly at each other. But there is an unspoken norm that when we are on a video call, especially a work call, we are supposed to remain sitting at attention the entire time. No wonder we feel distracted and depleted after too much time in that position; it’s out of harmony with the way we are built to function.

It can be really helpful to explicitly name that people are welcome to do whatever they need in order to stay present and engaged in the call. This could mean getting up, moving around, looking away from the screen, stretching, or whatever else. We can just trust that if someone does something with their body that breaks the norm of “showing you are present by staying seated looking ahead,” they aren’t being rude. In fact, they are being polite by doing what they truly need in order to stay healthy and engaged, instead of being half-present and possibly surfing the internet.

9. Listen with Your Heart

When we communicate, we are sharing much more than the words we are saying. We are expressing feelings, desires, and innumerable other subtleties. In work settings, we are often encouraged to disregard or not engage those levels of experience, and instead focus only on the “job we are doing.” This often leaves people feeling unseen, unappreciated, or unsafe—which harms individuals and detracts from the creative potential of the group.

On video calls, it can sometimes be even more tempting to over-focus on the topic of the meeting or the problem to be solved and pay too little attention to the people who are gathered to work together. We can balance this out by being even more intentional about listening with our hearts.

Listening with our hearts is not a metaphor; it is a very literal experience. When we listen with our minds, we are mostly attending to the impact the person’s expression has on the way we are thinking, i.e., the words, ideas, and stories that exist in our mind. When we listen with our hearts, we attend to the impact a person’s expression has on the sensations in the core of our bodies. These sensations carry great wisdom and enable us to create a sense of connection, resonance, and compassion.

This keeps our humanity and our sense of connection with each other front and center. It’s amazing how much we can feel each other and establish a sense of being with each other, even across the video call medium.

10. Reflect and Acknowledge

We all know how it feels when someone isn’t actually listening to us but is instead waiting for their turn to talk. We all know how it feels when we offer something important, but it gets disregarded, or even accredited to someone else. These phenomena aren’t unique to video calls, but they can be exacerbated when we aren’t physically present to feel that we are received, share a side glance with someone else who also noticed that what we offered was not met with the reception it deserved, or rest into the felt sense of being a part of the group that can come from simply sitting together.

But we can take active steps to make sure we are really honoring each other and weaving each other’s contributions together. One way to do this is to reference what the last person said before sharing what you yourself have to say. It can be as simple as, “I heard Juan say X, that makes me think Y.” This allows us to signal to each other that we are really listening and caring, and it starts to weave participants together while exploring how their perspectives relate to one another.

We can go a step further and, when we disagree with each other, we can begin by reflecting the legitimacy of each other’s perspectives. “Sally recommended X. I see that is valid because of Y, but I actually think we should do Z because of W.”

When what we share is received, we tend to feel included, respected, and connected. Not only does it cultivate the emotional health of individuals, it also supports the cohesion and creativity of the group. When we allow all ideas to enter the space, build off one another, and be valued as contributions to a co-creative process, we tend to feel like a powerful team as opposed to individual competitors in a race to the solution.

None of these things are silver bullets, and nothing will really replace being in the room together, but they can help us be more connected, healthy, and effective amidst the moment where we find ourselves. And, there’s an added bit of beauty: Right now, many of us are finding a new appreciation for human connection and becoming more intentional with how we cultivate it. Many of the skills we learn for creating connection over the internet will also help us create greater connection and togetherness when we can gather together in person again. So, in some ways, this is an opportunity for us all to up level our ability to foster belonging, inclusion, and interconnectedness.