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In-Person for the Big Stuff

Let’s just get everyone in a room and talk about it. There’s something magic about that, even in this age of magic technology that allows us to talk through screens and collaborate through platforms from places unknown. Indeed, in sharp relief to the alternatives, the in-person meeting is perhaps more magical today than ever.

Aquaculture Listening Session, Ellsworth, Maine, March 21, 2024

People are more likely to change their minds in three-dimensional meetings than on two-dimensional screens. I’m not sure why, but I’ve seen it. And felt it. I can feel a shift of mood or energy, a shift of consciousness that it’s hard to feel through a screen. I suppose it’s because I can evaluate body language and facial expressions, as a whole. I can look around a room and see changes in posture, changes in attitudes. When meeting through a screen I cannot look around “the room.” I see only fragments delivered by carefully-pointed cameras. It’s hard to “read the room” when I can’t see the room, as a whole.

And when I can’t read the room it’s hard to know if my views are aligned, or not, or how people are reacting to the views being expressed. As humans we are incredibly perceptive about ALL that’s happening in a room of people. We’re very impressive; evolved even. We should not sell ourselves short and pretend that a screen-based meeting (two dimensions in a small defined frame) offers nearly the amount of data as an in-person meeting (three-dimensions without limits on where I can look).

Volume and Speed of Data Exchange by Meeting Type

I facilitate all kinds of meetings and I get that on-line meetings have value in certain circumstances with certain objectives, absolutely. Yet my favorite meetings are when a group of people with different views get in a room to hear each other. Those are the fun ones; the memorable ones. You know what? I have a very hard time remembering on-line meetings yet I bet I can remember at least one thing about every in-person meeting I’ve ever experienced, perhaps because I “experience” in-person meetings whereas I pretty much “watch” on-line meetings.

When we meet in person, not only do we hear each other in formal ways as each person stands and says their piece, we exchange glances, hold doors, share food, and bathrooms, and the parking lot. The micro-communications that happen in these off-camera ways is not to be underestimated. It’s these incidental micro-communications that clue me in to the group’s culture, how it shifts, and where I stand relative to others. Macro-communications happen off-camera too. If you have even been part of a legislature or a council or a board, you know that most decision-making happens not in the main room but in the hallway or the parking lot, person-to-person.

Norman Rockwell, Freedom of Speech, 1943

Last month I facilitated a series of meetings for the Maine Department of Marine Resources on the topic of Aquaculture; what’s good about it, what’s not good about it, and how it should be regulated…….from MANY points of view! I think those meetings were successful not just because people had a chance to give input – they could have done that through a screen or through a survey – but because people had a chance to hear each other, in a room together, and experience each other’s reactions in ALL dimensions. It’s relatively easy to discount a talking head on a screen. It’s not so easy to discount a person who’s “in your space” looking in your eyes backed up with full scale body language and desperate tone-of-voice. Such an in-person experience is likely to be memorable. You will think about it later. You might “process” it with someone later. And on reflection, it might cause you to change your mind. Even if just a bit.

Again, I’m not saying that an in-person town hall meeting is best for every situation, far from it. What I am saying is that in-person meetings are special – magic even – and should be used unapologetically for “the big stuff.” When there’s an angry mob, when opinions are hot, when the stakes are high, get everyone in the room and talk about it.

One thought on “In-Person for the Big Stuff

  1. Craig, I agree completely that in person creates a very different dynamic and impact. I think it’s mostly because we feel a certain connection related to vulnerability. When you are sharing physical space, how you are perceived, whether positively or negatively, matters. On a screen, you don’t really feel seen and it’s easy to escape without being noticed, ie with no impact
    The advantage of virtual is that it’s more accessible to a larger group of people. But it will never fully take the place of in person

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