What’s Stopping Great Online Facilitation?

What stops great in-the-room facilitators, trainers and group facilitators from doing their work remotely? In a series of interviews this summer, I sought to find out.

I showed my interviewees some modern tools that are changing what’s possible. For example, several were unaware of Zoom’s breakout groups capability, which can make a huge difference.

But some important issues were reported:

  • I can’t feel the energy of the group. Key sensory channels that people were used to using were missing when working remotely. These included eye contact, some body language, body heat… even smell!
  • I can’t get the participants to interact with each other directly. Challenges included informal chat (around the coffee machine); shared interaction with a whiteboard or sticky-note board; and direct physical interaction eg playing physical games involving throwing an object from one person to another.
  • I can’t move! Many trainers like to ‘pace’, or to use vigorous gestures, or to deliver specific types of message by/when moving specific spaces (eg. move to the back of the room when a student presents). It feels very constraining to have to sit down.
  • I can’t see what participants are writing/drawing while they are doing it. The work in progress is typically out of sight of a person’s webcam – and it would be quite a big deal to set up a separate camera.
  • I can’t ‘overhear’ what’s happening in the breakout groups. Trainers often rely on this to know whether students have ‘got it’ – or to tell whether they’re actually doing the prescribed activity!

Because I love remote group training and facilitation, and do it routinely, these were great reminders.

  • Human beings are fundamentally embodied: we are not brains in jars. We use our bodies to think, and we use our physical environments as extensions of our thinking space.
  • Humans are social creatures: we think and feel in relation to other people. Doing things together involves more senses than just sight and sound.

To do high-quality facilitation remotely needs to take these into account, and somehow compensate for what has been lost.

It’s clear that for trainers, coaches and facilitators who’ve mastered in-the-room work, going remote requires an extra layer of learning. Redesigning interventions and activities requires an extra layer of thinking.

For these people, therefore, going remote is ‘harder’ than staying in the room.

But the world needs what these people do.

If we want to unleash our most creative thinking to innovate our way out of the current economic, ecological and political messes we’re in, we need high-quality facilitation to support our conversations. Increasingly, those conversations happen remotely.

What needs to happen for great facilitators to think it’s worth their while to make the effort?

  • Want to develop your remote facilitation skills? Join me in in-person in Boston. And if you’d be interested in an online training event in late 2018/early 2019, please contact me.

4 thoughts on “What’s Stopping Great Online Facilitation?”

  1. Pirjo Mikkola

    Great to bring these thoughts up! A lot of valuable experience and many excellent skills are lost if a gap opens between face to face facilitators and live online facilitators. Actually both facilitators and participants need to find their way to bring their best assets to the new online venues as well as find out and welcome the benefits of online work. Thank you Judy for your invaluable ’X-ray listening’ to bring these voices to be heard.

  2. Interesting reflection Judy. When I switched from in room focus groups to using Synthetron for large scale conversations I felt all of this. Over time though I realised I could ‘tune in’ in other ways. It requires strong focus – so I learnt to fend off also interacting with the client / trainees / chit chat. I noticed a real quality difference during those sessions where I felt aligned with the participants – call it quantum mechanics, call it woowoo, but there’s definitely something that works. Great idea to offer training in this switch from air to water.

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