Leading up to the final presidential debate, the mute button garnered a lot of press. This time around each candidate’s microphone would be automatically muted after their initial two minutes of speaking time was up. The rule was set to prevent some of the chaos that happened in the first debate.
Interestingly enough, there was less talking over one another than in the first debate, and the mute function ended up not being used. Sometimes simply knowing something consequential will happen is enough to modify short-term behavior, at least when it comes to communication.
Is the mute button practical in the real world?
With remote work here to stay for the long run, yes – it is practical. In some ways it’s already standard practice. When Zoom is used for events, virtual classes, and meetings with a large number of participants, everyone but the current speaker is muted. Muting everyone avoids distractions such as ambient background noise or conversations of people who aren’t paying attention and forgot to mute themselves.
To be effective, the rules must be fair.
In the debate, the candidates would only be muted if they spoke longer than two minutes giving their initial answers. The rest of the time the debate would be allowed to flow as a debate should – a back and forth exchange between two candidates. These rules promote fairness in allowing each person to voice their opinion while also allowing for open discussion and discourse.
For meetings, it’s important to set clear ground rules such as these. It ensures that everyone is on the same page and that no one can state impropriety or unfairness if they get muted. As evidenced in the debate, simply having these rules and the threat of being muted is sometimes enough to improve behavior, especially when it comes to communication.
The power to mute people must not be abused.
It’s worth asking people to mute themselves and self-manage their interactions, but unfortunately that doesn’t always work. The host needs to be able to mute people when necessary, but this feature must not be abused. The host can’t mute someone just because they don’t agree with what they’re saying or they feel that person is being annoying.
Rules need to be set for when people can have their microphones on and when they need to be off. The power to mute can be invoked if a person is breaking agreed upon rules, using derogatory language, or causing disruption. With great power comes great responsibility – the person who’s in charge of muting must act fairly.
Muting doesn’t address the bigger issues.
Muting someone who’s interrupting, speaking out of turn, or generally being disruptive is a temporary fix. It solves the problem as it’s happening but does nothing to change future behavior. It’s important to look at the bigger picture – is the same person needing to be muted on multiple occasions? Does communication spiral out of hand more in certain types of meetings? If you find yourself reaching for the mute button multiple times in a meeting, that’s a sign to start trying to identify the underlying cause.
For smaller meetings, it’s best to address the problem.
If people are constantly interrupting, speaking over, or disrespecting each other, the mute button is nothing more than a band aid. These problems need to be addressed, otherwise every meeting will be chaotic and unproductive. With situations like this, it’s important to understand what’s causing the problem in the first place and figure out how to rectify it.
Setting ground rules for the meeting as to when people can speak, how they should speak up, and if and when mass mute will be used is the first step to improving the chaos. Zoom has a ‘raise hand’ feature can be used to unobtrusively signal that someone has something to say. This allows for participation without disruption and ensures that everyone gets an equal chance to voice their opinion.
For larger forums, mute actually is the best option.
In an in-person meeting or event it’s expected that everyone remains quiet while the presenter is speaking. With Zoom, the premise should remain the same, but often it doesn’t. If there’s a large audience, everyone but the speaker should be muted by default. Don’t trust people to remember to mute themselves when they join a meeting – just do it for them. That prevents unwanted interruptions throughout the entire meeting, especially from people who join in late.
One of the reasons people respect the rule of silence in a public forum is basic peer pressure. If they speak out of turn or start whispering to their friend, someone nearby will shush them. On a computer, in a sea of faces of the screen, there’s far less peer pressure making it easier and more tempting to break the rules.