Online Meetings: How To Avoid Tumbleweed Moments

How can you avoid tumbleweed moments in your online meetings?

You’ve probably experienced those moments many times. Someone asks a question and there’s a long, intense silence… … … … … until someone asks, “Has the line dropped?”

If you want to know how that feels, the effect is pretty easy to create.

tumbleweedFind (or call) online meetings where people don’t feel it’s safe to speak up for themselves, and ask very general questions, without much context, addressed to nobody in particular. 

In a face-to-face meeting, this kind of question seems to work differently – some people find the silence so uncomfortable that it forces them to speak up, to answer whatever the question was, even when it feels risky to do so.

But my experience has been that the same doesn’t usually happen in online meetings, whether in synchronous audio or video-conferences, or in asynchronous discussions.

The tumbleweed just keeps on tumbling – which can be very uncomfortable for hosts and attendees, and probably doesn’t help get the meeting’s business done.

When you’ve experienced this, it’s tempting to stop asking questions, give up trying to engage people in discussion, and instead to fall back on rigid agendas and predictable status reports.

But tumbleweed moments aren’t inevitable, and creative, collaborative discussions online are possible.

To avoid tumbleweed moments:

  • Create a trusting, appreciative and open atmosphere in your online meeting, so everyone feels that it’s safe to contribute (try reading Nancy Kline’s Time To Think for how-to ideas)
  • Be specific about the context of your question, and what kind of response you would like. For example, “I can’t remember… what was the name of that project?” seeks a different kind of response to “I’d like to get a sense of the general mood around this issue.”
  • Choose your discussion question carefully, using it to direct attention quite specifically.
  • Especially in audio-only conference calls, specify who should answer first, and how the discussion should continue – otherwise everyone’s waiting for everyone else to speak, and may forget what they had to say. I like to set up participants around a virtual table at the start of a call, then it’s easy to say, “Let’s hear from Mary first, then go around the table clockwise.”
  • A nice tip I picked up from Linda Aspey last week: invite people to let others know when they’ve finished speaking, for example by ritually ending their remarks with, “What does anyone else think?”


  • What tips do you have to share? Please comment below.

1 thought on “Online Meetings: How To Avoid Tumbleweed Moments”

  1. Hi Judy, great advice. I would add that I often have a second version of the initial question ready to go if I hear “crickets” after I ask the question. If this is the case, I often then ask the same question differently – explaining why (“I’m wondering whether this question made sense to everyone. Let me try it a different way…”) Another tip: If I hear silence, I ask if I’m on mute (which has actually been the case once or twice). This has a way of making people laugh and usually prompts someone to pipe up. – Nancy

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