Over the last several months the world at large has made an enormous adjustment in how business is conducted. Virtual meetings were somewhat commonplace before Covid-19. But when possible, face to face meetings were preferred. Why? We are social animals who evolved to build trust and rapport through personal interactions. Consciously and unconsciously, we “read” the whole person in front of us. We are wired to assess mood, openness or restraint, and overall general attitude. This assessment serves to inform our brain how to respond in return. Should we be cautious about what we say or can we speak freely; should we keep our ideas to ourselves or should we share our gut reactions openly?
Prior to Covid-19, we relied on being physically together to work through thorny issues, engage in challenging conversations, and create the kind of synergies that lead to good strategic sessions and novel problem solving. We shared a common organizational culture underscored by physical proximity. There is a tangible sense of “shared space” created by humans when they are in proximity to one another. Situational awareness results from how well we are able to “read a room” and modulate our behavior accordingly. In fact, emotional intelligence is really about how we manage ourselves in relation to others, individually and collectively.
Remember the way meetings used to occur? A time is set for the meeting, you wrap up what you are doing and likely walk towards another room, another physical space, where the meeting is held. The entire time you are moving towards that space, your brain is shifting from where you were to where you will be. Once you arrive at the door and walk through the doorway, your brain begins doing the work of assessing the mood, the “temperature” the room, and you calibrated yourself accordingly.
Today, going from meeting to meeting is most likely no more than a click on the screen. And entering the meeting “room” means looking at a screen cluttered with small faces—all in their different spaces into which you can see very little; just some background. It is impossible for our brain to replicate the state of space shared with whole people, moving about, where we can pick-up the necessary information to sort out the nonverbals that create the kind of trust and safety where synergy is born.
So, what are we to do now that we are deprived of the basic evolutionary neurological tools we use to navigate in-person relationships and dynamics? How do we bridge the digital divide so we can be fully present and attuned to one another when we can’t “read” the whole person and connect in the ways we have always relied on?
Bioneurophilia has shown us that soothing experiences in nature have a positive impact on our brain’s prefrontal cortex. This results in many positive effects; chief among them are reduced impulsivity, increased perspective, decreased bias, and increased humility. These qualities are necessary when people are building trust and collaboration. When we are attuned to our natural surroundings our senses are alert and communicating, and we are in touch with our habitat. It looks not too different than situational awareness in the physical space of a meeting room. We are absorbing information that is then assimilated into our mental and physical state. Studies show that the quality and clarity of our thinking is enhanced when we are in nature and in touch with our senses. And most compelling is that this cognitive and emotional shift happens within seconds when one simply imagines nature.
We can replicate this in this short visualization exercise which you can do with your team at the beginning of a virtual meeting.
Let’s try and do what we can to shorten the gap between my space and yours.
Get comfortable in, take a couple of deep and relaxed breaths. Close your eyes if you are comfortable doing so. Picture a door in front of you. This is the threshold between the world you are coming from as you arrive to this meeting — and the space we are going to create today, where you can be fully present and attuned. Open the door.
Now, imagine walking through the doorway to a place where you feel your absolute best. Envision a place of beauty, one that inspires you to be at peace, relaxed, fulfilled and full of a sense of wellbeing. What does it look like? What does it smell like? What does it sound like? Close your eyes and take a few moments to imagine yourself in this place and take it all in. Relax into it and it enjoy.
Now take a deep breath and come back to this meeting, but bring that feeling from where you were here with you.
Share with your colleagues a word or two about the place you envisioned and how you felt in it. As we continue our meeting, try and keep these shared feelings and the calm we felt in our imagined place, present in our virtual space and in our time together.
Since Covid-19, I find myself regularly introducing this visualization before individual or team client meetings and before presentations. Even though I never give explicit instructions to envision somewhere outside, participant’s imaginations take them somewhere outside in the natural world. Our brains instinctively default to nature for an experience of emotional integration and equilibrium. It is what E.O. Wilson called “biophilia.”
So, while we have to temporarily sacrifice the in-person meeting and shared actual space, I recommend this simple nature visualization exercise as a way of bringing participants to a shared state of equilibrium and calm before embarking on your meeting agenda. This sharing allows everyone to start the meeting at their best and everyone’s brain, by virtue of having spent a few important minutes outside, is better prepared to engage in emotionally intelligent behavior where self and situational awareness can guide the conversation. By collectively visualizing that special place of beauty, peace and inspiration— and having awakened your sensory imagination—the gap of virtual distance is shortened and everyone can begin their meeting in a shared frame of mind.
All together now, let’s give it a try!