When we first started training people to use our virtual protocols and activities in Zoom, we believed it was important to remind our participants to stay muted until it was their turn to speak. In fact, we created a slide to show with new “tech tips” before we started the first training session, featuring this request. However, it wasn’t long before we realized there were times when it was actually advantageous to ask all participants to unmute themselves.  

Muting your mic when you’re on any video call, meeting, or training is necessary to cut down on background noise. This is especially true when the group is large. The more people who are in a video meeting, the more dog barking, lawn mower rumbling, paper rustling and phone ringing everyone will have to hear while trying to pay attention to whomever is talking.  Headsets can help cut down on background noise, but not completely obliterate it. That’s why muting when not speaking can be necessary.

Two situations in which you might choose to have a group be silent, but unmuted.

  1. When the group is small and meets on a regular basis.

    If there are six or fewer people in the meeting and everyone is participating from a quiet space or wears headphones/headsets, it is not necessary to mute. This allows conversations to flow freely, approximating the experience of in-person meetings. In this situation, there is no need to make others wait while you search for the unmute button (or, even more frustrating, speaking and not realizing you’re muted until someone tells you that you are muted and then having to unmute yourself).

  2. When it is important to feel a sense of togetherness and belonging.

    When I first began to facilitate trainings virtually, I was bothered by something that really took me by surprise: the lack of background noise. This gave me an unsettling feeling of talking into a completely empty room.  Even though I saw 15 faces on my screen, they didn’t seem as if they were really there. And, unless they were staring straight into their camera or actively showing reactions to what I was saying, it felt like no one was paying attention. I realized the importance of the non-verbal cues we take for granted when we are with a group of people. When communicating through screens, we lose these auditory cues along with almost all body language cues. Combine this with the fact that small rectangles with even smaller faces can be very difficult to read, and you may struggle to “read your room.”

Staying silent (not speaking) but unmuted allows the natural sound of living humans to come through. This feels reassuring and can help all of us feel less alone and more like we’re a part of a group. It can also allow us to communicate our feelings without saying a word. For example, I often ask the group in a New Coaches CFG training to unmute themselves during activities such as the Zones of Comfort, Risk and Danger; Feedback Nightmares; and Compass Points. These activities all help build the safety and trust that is essential for creating a sense of belonging.  Unmuted participants during these activities often make sounds that express how they are feeling without saying a word. People often “hmmmm,” “huh,” “tsk,” sigh or take a quick deep breath when reacting to things that others say or do. These audible — yet somehow not intrusive — sounds can really help the speaker understand how others are feeling about what they are saying. These cues can make a small but very important difference when helping a group build trust.

What are your thoughts, feelings, and experiences around the differences of being muted or unmuted? We’re all still learning and would love to hear!

Michele Mattoon

By Michele Mattoon, NSRF Executive Director

Michele Mattoon, NSRF Executive Director & Facilitator, has led the NSRF since 2009 and previously was an elementary coordinator and teacher.