I recently facilitated my first in-person meeting since the pandemic began. In many ways, it was like riding a bicycle. I enjoyed moving around the room to listen to a breakout group without being intrusive and feeling the energy of others.
There was one thing that impacted the experience for me, and that was the fact that we were all wearing masks. One thing I realized was how much I rely on reading facial expressions. Faces can tell me if people are interested, confused, excited, or agitated. Reading the room by scanning expressions is automatic to me. I get a good feel for how people respond on a Zoom call with large groups because I can see if people are nodding or furring their brows in disagreement.
Masks cover half of a person’s face, so the only clue to their feelings is their eyes. When participants are “reading” me and sizing me up to determine if they will trust me to facilitate them they won’t see my smile when a mask covers my mouth. So, I make an effort to smile really big when wearing a mask, so my eyes crinkle on the sides and “smile.”
I’ve been pondering which situation is best for creating an open environment: being on a video call unmasked and seeing everyone’s faces OR being in person and masked. They both fall short of being physically together unmasked, yet it may be some time before that is normal again.
Interestingly, the in-person session I facilitated was Disney’s Creative Strategy workshop which had high energy and was fun. We wanted to create a light and happy feel for the session. The client had a brilliant idea and ordered masks with silly smiles on them for everyone to wear. These goofy masks created a sense of joy (and sometimes laughter because they were truly ridiculous).
I wonder if we had just worn our masks, (the plain ones without the smiles printed on the front) if it would have felt different that day.
Silly masks with smiles are not always appropriate. If a team is focused on something serious, it would have seemed out of place. I wonder what it would be like to facilitate a session in person with masks on during a tense topic. Would not being able to see a person’s entire face impact how people feel? Would people feel less comfortable being vulnerable? Would people misread each other’s expressions or statements if they could only see each other’s eyes?
I found a research paper that says “the eyes and the mouth” are equally important in expressing emotions. We size people up by paying attention to the entire face. So, we do lose something when masks cover the bottom half of our faces.
As facilitators and leaders work to create open, safe environments for meetings, we need to be aware of the impact of masks that may “mask” our expressions. Perhaps being on a video call creates more trust than being masked and in person because we can see each other’s entire faces.
I’d love to hear from facilitators who are doing in-person meetings at work now. Do masks have a significant impact on your sessions? How do you increase the openness and trust in a room where everyone is masked?
About the Author: Leigh Ann Rodgers, Founder of Better Teams and the Forward, community, is an IAF Certified Professional Facilitator with 20 years of experience in the human development field. Leigh Ann is a skilled meeting facilitator, trainer, and coach working across the globe to help leaders cultivate teams that are happy and high-performing.
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