Why Facilitation Fails Online

I love facilitating groups online. It’s inspiring to support a bunch of scattered individuals to form a real team, working out how to communicate with each other and make stuff happen quickly and efficiently.

And on Friday, I’ll be hosting the second Metaphorum – an online unconference for fans of Clean Language, metaphor, self-organisation and emergence. There’s a huge convergence of positive energy into 12-ish hours of online videoconference conversations.

Meanwhile, I’m also involved in setting up a self-organised Fellows Forum for the RSA. We’re all volunteers. It’s working – 500 users and counting – but there are some very different challenges.

What’s the difference? I think it may come down to something I’ve known for a while: “Constraint inspires creativity.”

That specific phrase came from an old version of the Twitter rules, but it resonated with me from my time at Teletext – and before that, tabloid journalism. Give me a set number of words, or characters, and I’ll get to work – but a blank page scares me.

In fact constraint inspires not just creativity, but also connection and communication.

When I facilitate a dozen people in a room, there’s a constraint – a very physical one. It is possible for someone to just walk out, but social pressure makes them stay.

That means I can use some fairly brave techniques to “force” people to connect, to listen, and to pay attention to the elephant in the room. That’s when real team-building happens.

I can do the same with a group on a video- or even phone-, conference, especially if these are people who are paid to be there. When everyone’s supposed to be on the call together, and someone’s missing, it’ll be noticed. If their line always drops when the conversation gets tough, we’ll notice. That means that the constraint is present and by using Clean Language and other approaches, we can get real communication happening.

It’s very different in the text-only Forum, where people drop in and out as they please – it’s an asynchronous platform, as the jargon has it. The constraint holding the thing together, the”container”, is so big and/or so loose that if someone goes quiet, it could be days before their absence is noticed. And we can’t know if it’s them, or their computer, that’s died. Everyone’s guessing. Is this person sulking? Or sunning themselves?

The lack of constraint means it’s very difficult to “force” anyone to do anything on an asynchronous platform. I’ve noticed that techniques which would work really well in a small, face-to-face group to push people to confront the stuff they find difficult – such as (for us Brits) expressing emotions directly, or challenging someone we disagree with – just don’t work on the Forum. Any pressure applied by the facilitator turns to mush, or is redirected in strange directions.

What I’m concluding is that constraint is essential for getting to that meatier stuff. Until we can find a way to constrain an asynchronous platform, combining synchronous with asynchronous communication is the way forward. Let’s do the easier stuff on the Forum. And then, when we want to go deeper, let’s connect on Zoom.

3 Comments

  • Gregg

    01/04/2017

    Axiom of systems theory:
    Any system when placed in a bound condition and to which energy is either added or subtracted will transform in such a way as to always return to its original state.
    In other words constraint engenders transformation and creativity in the direction of greater integrity….in physics this principle is utilized to create a Bose-Einstein Condensate which is an exotic state of matter which is so integrated that it functions as a unified substance with amazing super properties.

    By way of a metaphor, constraint within a group engenders the development of a unified group dynamic and a unified group consciousness….

    Regards Gregg

  • Rolf

    06/04/2017

    An interesting thought that clashes with my beliefs, especially when you say “force”. I believe it’s The Call that makes people gather, connect, listen and pay attention. Opposed to that, I feel that the “conatainer” (never liked that word, I prefer “space”) rather serves to establish security, i.e. to keep bad things out rather than force good things to stay inside. As a facilitator, I consider myself, during my work, to be a gatekeeper (in the Host Leadership) sense.

    In an asynchronous online forum, to me it seems that the threads are the “containers”, not the forum, because people willingly enter a thread precisely to communicate (notwithstanding trolls, of course) and to exchange ideas about the topic of the thread. That topic is a constraint, which you notice once you’re getting told that your contribution was “off topic”.

    Just my 2 cents. Still thinking about what you said.

  • JR

    06/04/2017

    Thanks Rolf – loads to reflect on in your comment.

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