Non-verbal aspects of a meeting, revisited.
Meetings are hard, but Yesterday’s* meeting went well and didn’t leave me totally drained. This is a recall of was different from usual, as I am analysing and adding the factors to my mind’s toolbox of coping strategies.
The context for Yesterday’s meeting
Yesterday*, the last thing in the world I wanted was the meeting. Tired, mildly depressed, and feeling so very unready for talk, interaction and the role as professional service provider.
The math circuits of my brain don’t have a fail-safe mode and tend to freeze when I feel stressed, nervous, tired or overloaded with impacts. I knew I had to suggest and guide about how to set the shipping calculations so it would work for all products (I had calculated some suggestions from home, but they were likely to be adjusted). So I worried whether I was able to operate my calculator in an IQ>70 manner.
Mind freeze was a problem in the meeting, but it was mild and (hopefully) invisible. My notebook where I wrote the numbers down to handle them reminded of an anthill – every number was on the move and relentlessly crossed path with other numbers. However after a while, after realising that I in any case seemed to understand the logic better than the client, I relaxed and the details came into place.
The meeting took place outdoor in a cafe I am familiar with. The tables were close to the main road with frequent but slow traffic. Daisy bought me a cup of coffee and had her computer ready when I came. She was very polite.
The aspects of meetings that can be major stress factors – relentless talk, constant eye contact, overdramatic face expressions, interfering background noise – didn’t bother much. The traffic wasn’t too intrusive, the talk from nearby tables didn’t interfere, I could hear everything Daisy said and didn’t feel overloaded or invaded.
I think the following factors helped:
Since we sat outdoor, it was natural to wear sunglasses.
Sunglasses provide an oasis of personal space. When you are wearing sunglasses people can never tell precisely where you are looking or if they have your attention; so they are free to believe what they like and you are free to take as many breaks as you need and concentrate on what’s relevant.
It is always socially acceptable to wear sunglasses outdoor in Australia, even during conversations – that’s one of the many nice aspects of Australian culture. The natural light is bright and can always harm the eyes even when the sun isn’t shining, so it would be unreasonable to expect anyone to take off their sunglasses for conversational reasons.
I wore my earplugs during the entire meeting; I placed them in my ears before I walked to the cafe, in the privacy of my car, and didn’t take them out before I was back in the car again.
That worked well. They reduced the ambient noise enough, and I could easily hear the conversation. The client had of course no idea that I was wearing ear plugs (I presume).
The earplugs I use are standard skin coloured foam ear plugs. They are marketed as ‘invisible’ ear plugs online** because they are unnoticeable when they are adjusted and in place in the ears. They look like this fresh from the pack:
‘Invisibility’ is achieved by adjusting the length so they don’t stick out of the ears (cut off excess length with scissors). They aren’t literally invisible, but discrete, and people generally don’t see what they don’t expect to see.
I cut off either 1/3 or 1/2 depending on how effective I want them to be – cutting them in halves reduces their effect, which can be a good thing depending on the situation. This one has only 1/3 cut off:
Foam earplugs reduce the volume of ‘distant’ sounds (> a meter or 2 away) relatively more than nearby sounds and can help me to hear a conversation better when there is moderate background noise, than without earplugs.
I explained it to an audiology specialist I saw a while ago, and he validated the effect and gave a technical explanation. Therefore, I think it may also work for other people who have issues with background noise – be it for cognitive or auditory reasons.
Better concentration due to reduction in the total amount of distracting noises and reduced stress could also explain some of the effect.
Ear plugs do have the annoying side effect that one’s own sounds – e.g. breathing, chewing, friction (e.g. from clothes) and one’s own footsteps can sound much louder than usual – but that’s much preferable to drowning in random background noises and struggling to draw meaning out of conversations.
Familiarity with the cafe and the suburb helped keep the situation easy and predictable. I knew where to find parking and knew that I wouldn’t get lost trying to find the location, and I knew what to expect from the environment.
Most of these factors would have been OK anyway, but knowing in advance that there was nothing to worry about made a difference. It freed the mind to concentrate on relevant tasks rather than trying to prepare mentally for unpredictable stress.
Another familiarity aspect that’s important to me is to always have the same drink – a small latte in a take-away cup. I’ll take this opportunity to explain why I always order my coffee take-away, although the people who ask won’t read this!
Image from Coffee – Coder – Code
Cafes serve coffee in anything they can come up with: glasses (burning the fingers when holding them), small cups, tall cups, broad cups in different arrangements and with different weights. Each new piece of equipment needs to be learned – how to hold the glass without burning the fingers, how to handle the cup and not tip it slightly when lifting it, get used to the weight, shape, grip, size and sensation of holding it.
Doing all that while talking and listening in the same time is multitasking, and something is bound to go wrong – spilled coffee, burned fingers, lack of concentration on the conversation (typically the latter). It also ruins the purpose of having a coffee: namely to relax & enjoy & focus on being social.
A take-away cup solves all that. It is pretty standardised and always sits the same familiar way in the hand, weighs the same, balances the same way. Since it requires close to zero attention, full attention can be paid to the conversation and to relaxing and enjoying the coffee.
It is great to see that a meeting in a cafe can work out so smoothly … a barrier to self-employment overcome (hopefully). I also think that the client and I have established good rapport, and I feel that I am perceived as competent and pleasant company.
Daisy also passed on some nice feedback: her business contact, whom she characterised as having ‘high standards’, had praised the re-vamped website and said it looked well-organised and neat. Very reassuring!
Now I just hope that the project is really over and won’t require any more effort.
Read more: Journaling Project Daisy.
*To avoid confusion: this is the same meeting and same ‘Yesterday’ I wrote about in my last post – I split this topic off from the post and didn’t have time to finish it on that day
**They can be purchased online, but I buy mine in local chemists for about $0.80 per pair (AUD)