1. Turn your camera on
First things first — no one wants to stare at a bunch of little black boxes. When everyone’s cameras are off, the vibe of a breakout room is naturally more awkward. To make the mood of a breakout room more positive, be sure to turn your camera on. It’s as simple as that. Immediately, you will make a good first impression and others will get the message that you are engaged and ready to interact with everyone. Small talk can be difficult if you aren’t looking at any faces, but hopefully you’ll feel more comfortable if everyone takes the initiative to turn their cameras on.
2. Acknowledge everyone’s presence
Treat the conversation like you are in-person with everyone. What is the first thing you would do if you were in an actual room with the people in your breakout room? Naturally, you would probably say hello. Instead of just hopping into a breakout session and staring at your screen mindlessly, make an effort to say hello to everyone and acknowledge the presence of others before the awkward silence settles in. Not only will this kick off the conversation, it will make everyone feel more comfortable and inclined to participate knowing that their presence is acknowledged.
3. Ask a question — and respond
You may feel overwhelmed trying to think of a conversation starter, especially when your professor doesn’t give the class any specific topics or questions to discuss together. When in doubt, just ask a question — any question. What are everyone’s majors? Favorite restaurant in Charlottesville? Ask if people are considering switching to credit/no credit or keeping letter grades. Truly, anything that comes to mind, just ask. Chances are, everyone else will be thankful you said something just to avoid having to endure 10 minutes of silence. Similarly, if someone else asks a question, don’t just leave them hanging. Speak up and reciprocate.
4. Pay attention
It’s obvious when other people are on their phones, distracted by something else on their computers or simply not paying attention — and it’s the worst, especially if you are making an effort to facilitate conversation and get to know everyone a little bit better. In order to make the conversation flow more comfortably, pay attention to what is going on on the Zoom screen in front of you. Even if you are deathly bored or are just itching for class to be over, remind yourself that it’s only ten or so minutes of your life. Pay respect to others and make them feel as though their ideas and efforts are valued.
5. Check in with people
Maybe you are truly lost for words. You’ve had a long day, you’re stressed about school or something is going on in your life, and you don’t feel like having any sort of social interaction. It happens to all of us. Even though it may seem difficult at first, one thing you can do to make yourself feel better is to check in with others. We are all living through a global pandemic together and for some, it has greatly affected not only their academic lives, but their personal lives. Other people are likely experiencing similar levels of stress. Make breakout rooms a time to check in with each other and see how everyone is feeling in general. It’s a great way to connect with others, and people will appreciate the thought.
6. Don’t stare at yourself
Almost everyday, we spend hours on Zoom, logging on for lectures, clubs, meetings and even to check in with friends and family. As we spend hours doing this, we also spend more time looking at ourselves and judging our appearance on camera. You may feel completely comfortable and confident speaking with others in person, but place yourself in front of a screen and everything falls through the roof. We aren't used to watching ourselves speak. While it’s tempting to look at your appearance in the little video box, try to focus on others instead of watching yourself. Not only will you feel more at ease and more able to interact with others, you won’t have the opportunity to notice weird habits and develop new insecurities.
7. Stay unmuted
It’s a simple tip, but it makes all the difference. When you enter a breakout room and immediately see a bunch of red slashes over the voice icon in each camera box, you naturally feel inclined to mute yourself too. Next time, try leaving yourself unmuted. Most likely, others will follow your lead and do the same. With everyone’s audio unmuted, the conversation will more closely replicate in-person interactions, where you don’t have to “unmute” yourself to speak. This will allow for smoother transitions, build a more natural speaking flow and facilitate active, open conversation.
8. Give visual cues
When we have conversations in person, nonverbal cues help us to effectively communicate. We are better able to comprehend what is being conveyed and are therefore more able to react and respond appropriately. Unfortunately, Zoom prohibits a lot of the nonverbal cues we use during in-person conversations, therefore adding to the stress of virtual interaction. However, we can still try our best to work in as many nonverbal cues as possible during breakout sessions. For example, try nodding your head and smiling when people are talking. This shows that you are present and acknowledging others’ ideas and perspectives. Instead of slouching in bed or on a couch, practice good posture and maintain eye contact to show that you are engaged and paying attention to what others are saying.
9. Confront the awkwardness head-on
You aren’t alone — everyone feels the awkwardness of Zoom. One simple way to combat the awkwardness that infiltrates breakout sessions is to confront it, bring it up and even laugh about it. This will help to lighten the mood and will defuse tension, so that others feel inclined to speak up. Acknowledging the awkwardness allows people to feel more comfortable with one another and not so stiff during a breakout session.
10. Give a formal goodbye
We all know it’s awkward when the countdown timer pops up and people randomly leave the breakout room without saying goodbye or acknowledging the end of the conversation. Like you would in a normal interaction, make sure to formally say goodbye to everyone before returning to the main session. Recognize that the conversation is coming to an end by saying, “It looks like our time is almost up! It was good talking with everyone!” Instead of seeming eager to return to the main session, a verbal farewell will show that you made an effort and enjoyed talking with everyone.