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Heartspace – relational contact in the virtual world

By 29th October 2020 No Comments

One of the most common frustrations we hear about virtual working is that there is no headspace. No space between meetings to pause and gather ourselves, no space within meetings for anything beyond ticking off tasks. We are ruled by the twin tyrannies of over-stuffed agendas and back to back sixty-minute meetings, so we constantly find ourselves running down the metaphoric Zoom corridor to get from one meeting to the next. Add to that all the other demands on our fraying attention – children at home, shielding parents, ever more byzantine coronavirus rules – and it is no surprise our heads feel full.

Some of these issues can be solved with some more intentional adjustments to meeting design. Back to back meetings? Instigate the therapeutic hour: fifty-minute sessions with a ten-minute gap. Unrealistic agendas? That old chestnut is common to in-person meetings too, so a more rigorous prioritization is the obvious, if hard to apply, answer.

But what if it’s not just headspace we’re missing, but heartspace? A deeper relational connection to others that is more than a quick chat about our weekends before getting down to business; a space in which to dwell with others to pause, ponder and to reflect; to feel fully in contact with one another, heard and seen; a space that generates warmth, empathy and a sense of belonging.

Organisations with cultures strong on purpose and values seem to be having a particularly tough time at the moment. People who are drawn to work in them thrive, not only on social connection, but on meaning making with like-minds, the creative frisson of thinking out loud about the many complexities, indeed absurdities, going on around them, finding common ground, to soothe and be soothed, and to map out a path forward. Frankly, many of us are heartily sick of the transactional meetings culture that has developed online and we want something else, an antidote to the adrenaline and cortisol rollercoaster of COVID response.

I’ve taken to calling this relational contact heartspace, and most of us know intuitively what it is. But how do we create it? Here are a few suggestions that we’ve found to work:

Acknowledge the ‘whole person’

WEF warned us back in the Spring that with the boundaries between work and home more blurred than ever this year, with the added continual tensions of constant health and risk monitoring, we should expect a second pandemic to come in mental health in the Autumn and sadly the data is pointing that way. With a lot of focus understandably on crisis response and rapid operational adjustments, it is not surprising that we only have bandwidth to focus on urgent issues. On the other hand, it’s been some time now and as one client put it, “we’ve settled in the routine of the crisis”. Time then to acknowledge that this ‘new normal’ is very far from normal, and that just because you look like you’re coping doesn’t mean you are. Making time to reflect on that together in the settings of formal meetings as well as informal one-to-ones can go a long way to overcome the sense of ‘coping alone’.

Slow down and make room for silence

Ever noticed how the greatest breakthroughs in team problem-solving come when everyone has finally dried up, the silence draws out and you’re staring into the middle distance? Allow longer pauses, give people permission to sit quietly and stare out of the window, soften their gaze. It’s not just that we can hear ourselves think, or we’re dwelling in the ‘fertile void’. We’re also being held by the energy created by the group which tacitly says ‘your thoughts have value, they’re worth waiting for’. Yet, like on the radio, on group conference calls silence stretches and can seem like ‘dead air’. Getting more comfortable with longer silences together can paradoxically make us feel more connected, not less.

Make Time to Think – and Feel

Nancy Kline’s seminal work has taught many of us how to create better thinking environments in the physical world with full attention, appreciation, encouragement, incisive questions and, importantly, expressing feelings. As she points out, unexpressed feelings inhibit good thinking. In a physical workshop setting, when confronting tricky emotional laden issues, or just when your group is really stuck in trying to make a decision, a facilitator might suggest you work in pairs, to talk about the sensations and feelings arising. This isn’t something we generally give ourselves permission for in the remote world and so we stick to the transactional and close down an important source of data for ourselves along with our more creative thinking capacities. But it’s easy to make time for if we choose to. Some virtual platforms make it easier than others to drop in and out of breakout rooms, so it is worth experimenting and find a platform that does. Combining frequent short break-outs, for pairs particularly, with some simple guiding questions, creates much needed breathing and feeling space.

Use non-verbal media

Sometimes what needs to be said can’t be put into words. Or perhaps you’ve just not found the right words yet. Try using another medium! Drawing, modelling in plasticine, using an item on your desk as a metaphor, and of course making things in Lego are all great ways to quickly connect us with ourselves and others through alternative ‘ways of knowing’.

Start a session with the three-step reset

Mindfulness practice is increasingly mainstream; many of us are bringing a regular mindfulness practice into our working lives. The concept of Social Mindfulness takes us a step further, with meditative processes we can do with others online to build relatedness and empathy. One of the simple practices from Social Mindfulness that you can implement at the start of any meeting is the three-step reset which focuses on thoughts, feelings and sensations as you breath and become present to yourself in your body.

Taking a leaf out of nature’s book

One of my favourite ways to bring heartspace into longer meetings is to design in a ten-minute pause, in which everyone (who can) goes outside or at least moves towards something natural and green. It might be a tree in the street outside, a house plant on the windowsill, even a weed struggling up through the cracks just outside the front door, but the point is to become fully immersed in the experience of being with, of interbeing with, this natural ‘other’. You might intensely study the tiny veins on a leaf or look upwards and out to the expanse of sky above you. The purpose is to pause and fully encounter the world around you, to notice your part and participation in it before returning to share a few words about your experience with colleagues. As we become more present to ourselves, we can be more available and present to others.
Perhaps you have other ideas and experiences you’d like to add?

Before you go, take a moment to reflect on these ideas and ponder a few questions:

  • Which of these suggestions are you already acting on?
  • If any of them seem impractical, absurd even, in your organisation, why might that be?
  • What is the meeting culture you are inadvertently creating? Is it what you would like it to be? If not, why not?
  • What small steps could you take with your team to bring a little more heartspace into your ways of working?

If you have ideas or questions, do get in touch. We’d love to hear from you.

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