In the Sunday Times recently, Helen Fielding revisited Bridget Jones, writing an extract from her self-isolation diaries. The piece offered light relief in disturbing times.
It also touched on an issue that is live for me. At 7.29am, Bridget is FaceTiming her friend Miranda. In the absence of her usual grooming regime, Miranda is consumed with anxiety ahead of a Zoom meeting ‘in hideous close-up’. She wails:
‘Why did audio calls choose the moment we turn feral to become obsolete and rude?’
For me, audio calls are neither outdated nor impolite. I find them intimate and absorbing, especially for small numbers of participants. As a coach and supervisor, an audio-only setting allows my attention to be fully on what is expressed, listening for nuances in tone, pace and breath. And yes, when numbers rise, the quality of this environment may become diluted, which makes it more difficult to stay present. However, the same may apply to visual interfaces, raising questions about the threshold at which any virtual gathering begins to lose potency.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In tune with the notion that audio calls are past their ‘use by’ date, I find I’m being pressured to use video interfaces for all kinds of conversation in this world of social distancing and home-working. I sense an implicit assumption that visual channels are superior to audio-only. In declining to use them, I feel like an outcast, a practitioner who will be ‘remaindered’ in a world that operates through WhatsApp, Skype and Google Hangouts. I hope this won’t be the case!
In recent years, I’ve explored the use of visual media in my coaching, supervision and dialogue work. My inquiry began because, on a personal level, I find visual- virtual very difficult. I’m sure I’m not alone in this, which prompts me to share my thinking. In doing so, I’m not trying to convince or persuade: one medium is not better than another, but each does create different conditions for conversation. Raising awareness of this supports us to choose fertile spaces for our work.
To offer some context, all my work is anchored in embodying dialogue practices. It is central to dialogue work to pay attention to actively establishing and sustaining conditions conducive to the conversation we intend to have. We create a container, a climate agreed consciously by all present and then collectively fostered. If we don’t do this deliberately, a container will be formed unnoticed, by factors such as physical setting, and the preconceptions and habits of behaviour of those present.
For virtual gatherings we tend to overlook the question of physical space and yet, when people meet bodily, we routinely consider the attributes and layout of the room we’re using, aware of their influence on what unfolds. It seems reasonable to assume there are similar considerations in virtual spaces. And, of course, individuals dial in from physical locations and the quality of these affect what ensues.
Ghislaine Caulat is a thought-leader in the field of virtual containers. She proposes that virtual settings have unique attributes, some enabling and some less so, and that navigating them skilfully calls for new forms of leadership and new ways of engaging with each other. In particular, she champions audio-only environments, drawing on the work of practitioners from psychotherapy, action learning and dialogue to support this stance. She posits that, stripped of visual stimulus, our capacity for listening is amplified and honed, and we literally have more time to think.
What does this mean for coaches and supervisors?
I believe that working virtually calls us to pay attention to our sensory preferences and to be curious about which media support us to be of greatest service to our clients. My realisation that I’m less able to do good work using video interfaces allows me to refer clients elsewhere if they strongly prefer to work visually. It’s important, when contracting, to explore the fit between our preferences and those of the client. Further, if we invite a client to consider the quality of space they dial in from, we nurture the potential for connecting well.
For me, the quality of both contact and contract form the container for our work, regardless of medium. It feels important to remain alert to this, amongst the hubbub.