Combine Season

Autumn is a beautiful time of year in Ohio. If you drive out into the rural areas you’re likely to see a scene like this: brilliant blue sky, farm buildings in the far distance, and a field of cornstalks waiting to be chopped down. The owner of this field decided to stop in the middle of cutting—probably knocking off to watch the Buckeyes game.

Virtual Tact

The Harvard Business Review recently carried an article on how to tactfully interject in a virtual meeting. “Tact” is a quality that you don’t see often associated with computer-based communications. On social media, for example, the full frontal attack often seems to be the preferred method of making a point, and one of the problems with email is that it’s far too easy to fire off a blast that you regret almost as soon as you hit the send button.

Virtual meetings, though, are a setting where trying to avoid offending colleagues and coming across as a rude jerk makes proceeding with tact an important consideration. At the same time, however, the virtuality can make it difficult to politely interject and make your point (particularly if you forget you are on mute). In-person meetings always seem to present an opportunity to have your say before the meeting breaks up and people leave the conference room, but the virtual context can be a barrier to participation. Sometimes, acting with tact seems to be at war with the need to contribute to the discussion, even if it means interrupting the flow.

So, what to do? Obviously, the first step is to self-edit a bit, and consider whether your point is really all that important. But if you conclude that it is, the HBR article suggests “signaling your interest” by using the “raise hand” feature, unmuting, using the chat feature to indicate you’d like to say something, or “gently rais[ing] your physical hand if you’re on video.” (The “gentle” means you shouldn’t make a ridiculous spectacle out of raising your hand, like Horschack on Welcome Back Kotter.) Other tactful techniques include reviewing the agenda in advance and letting the presenter know that you’d like to address some of the topics, or waiting until a natural break in the presentation to interject. The article even suggests some tactful phrases you can use as you are breaking in.

The last point in the article, however, is “be assertive when necessary.” Sometimes, visual signals don’t work–this is especially true when a PowerPoint is being presented, and the visual of you has been shrunk down to postage stamp size–and there simply might not be an obvious break where you can step in with your trenchant point. Tact is a valued quality, but you don’t want to have the meeting end without making your contribution, which could affect the next steps to be taken. Sometimes, tact and doing your job just don’t mix.