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The mind’s eye always wins

Video calls reveal the difficulties that can arise whe we can see how people aren't paying attention.

5 min read


Video call


Each month, When Growth Stalls examines why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is the president of McKee Wallwork + Co., an advertising agency that specializes in working with stalled, stuck and stale brands. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 Southwest Small Agency of the Year and again in 2018. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”

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I joined an online conference call the other day and found that all the other participants had their webcams on.The pressure to activate mine was immense. But I resisted. I’ll bet you’ve done it, too.

There was a time not so long ago that we all thought videoconferencing was going to take off — telephone calls would be a thing of the past, like rotary phones and the telegraph before them. But while the industry has grown, it has by no means become the new standard, for good reason.

Research suggests that the best explanation for why people avoid videoconferencing is vanity. Clearly that’s a piece of the puzzle; regardless of how attractive you are, webcams and office lighting can make you look terrible. Another oft-cited reason is multitasking (it’s a lot easier to do other things on a call if no one can see you).

Both are true, but I think there’s a broader (if subtler) reason why videoconferencing doesn’t work well: empathy. Go with me on this for a moment.

Empathy is the ability to sense how other people might be thinking or feeling. Usually that works in our favor, but it can work against us, too — not only in videoconferencing but whenever someone brings a laptop to a meeting, takes notes on their phone or looks around the room when they’re talking with us. We may assume the wrong thing.

Our minds are so sophisticated that we don’t fully understand how they operate; they complete pictures that our eyes can’t see. This “mind’s eye” is the reason why radio commercials can be as effective as television ads, despite lacking two of the three strengths of video: radio has sound but no sight or motion. Consider the ubiquitous Geico Gecko — when you hear his voice on the radio, in your mind’s eye you see a little green reptile, right? I hate to disappoint you, but it’s just an actor standing behind a mic in a studio somewhere.

Ever looked through a fisheye lens at a conference table full of people? Seen people having side conversations that by dint of distance you’re not a part of? Felt like you’re not in another room but on another planet? Your mind’s eye can lead you to all kinds of negative conclusions when that happens.

I heard about one company in which videoconferencing completely backfired; they were trying to pull the cultures of their disparate office locations together. Instead, the technology almost broke them apart.

When you’re on a regular old phone call with someone, in your mind’s eye you have their full attention, and it requires a barking dog, a clicking keyboard or an awkward pause for you to think otherwise. Even though they may be distracted, you can’t tell, and your mind’s eye is good with that.

On a videoconference, it’s different. In most cases people can’t look at the camera and screen at the same time, so they either have shifty eyes (“shifty” being the operative word) or they appear to be occupied with something else even when they’re fully engaged. That sends a terrible signal to whomever is speaking. Effective listening requires actual eye contact, because it’s with our eyes that we communicate to people that they have our full attention. Videoconferencing messes with that feedback loop.

Business, like life, is about relationships, and relationships are about empathy. It may sound touchy-feely, and at some level it is. But it’s also smart. If you care about having the respect and affection of those with whom you work, make sure you’re looking at things from their perspective. Otherwise their mind’s eye may be glaring at you without your knowing it. They may not even consciously realize it themselves. 

If you’re forced to join a videoconference, find a way to set up your camera and video feed so that it at least appears that you’re making eye contact. Recognize that the technology is set up to make you look inconsiderate and it will take significant effort to overcome that. Same goes with using a laptop in a meeting, taking notes on your phone or having a conversation with a colleague while you multitask; it doesn’t matter what you’re actually doing, it matters what people perceive you are doing.

Sometimes things are better left to the imagination. Technology isn’t always our friend. People don’t care so much if you’re having a bad hair day, but it rubs them the wrong way if they get the sense you’re ignoring, neglecting or disrespecting them — even if they can’t put their finger on why.

In a videoconference, in a meeting or just chatting in the hallway, it always behooves you to get inside people’s heads and view things from their perspective. The last thing you need is their mind’s eye working against you.