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My Top Ten (Joys of Virtual Facilitation)

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(Updated April 2020)

In January of 2013, I naively set out to offer my first virtual facilitation training.  How hard can it be? Lots seem to be doing it.  What I did not realize is that many are offering teleseminars and webinars and these are NOT the same as virtual interactive trainings.  You see, webinars and teleseminars are still mostly people talking at you – offering good content while most “participants” are not participating at all really. Most are multi-tasking – i.e., doing other things as they listen to the webinar.

I did not want this. So I set out to do something different.  I wanted to produce the same results and feeling as an in-person facilitation if possible.   Note, not only as good as an in-person training but as good as an in-person facilitated session where the learners were not talked to but actively engaged in hands-on activities that greatly drew on their own experiences and wisdom in the topic.

I soon realized I could not do it alone. This was a huge undertaking.  Yet, 7 months later, with complete immersion in this, taking the best training, seeking out the best software platforms* and involving several masterful colleagues, I think we are getting close. We produced a very good result that in some ways is more involving and expansive than our in-person trainings.  At least, it has the possibility of going this way.  P.S. I am a person who never considered she had any technology interest or ability, and who loved and still loves doing face to face facilitations and trainings.

*We used Adobe Connect for meetings because of excellent break out room features, whiteboards, full emoticons, meeting persistence, recording features, and much more. My joys come from using all the features as opposed to only screen sharing and telephone connection. Now, in 2020, i am learning to combine more of Zoom’s features such as Breakout rooms and whiteboard  with other platforms such as Mentimeter, Google Jamboard, Google docs and other more sophisticated brainstorming platforms such as Mural.

What did we discover that has me STILL raving about technology as the a perfectly feasible way of facilitating and offering facilitation training?

Here is what I’d say now about the joys of virtual facilitation or trainings – some are obvious, others are not.  All of these are based on my first hand experiences of immersing myself in developing, offering and participating in virtual meetings and training over the past 7 years.

  • #1: People from all over the globe are able to talk and exchange experience and ideas synchronously (at the same time and same place – in a virtual room).
  • #2: People learn and participate from a place of comfort & ease – no travel – fewer barriers to classism and ableism.  Other pluses: Virtually no travel and printing costs; very helpful to reducing the carbon foot print of travel; very helpful in pandemics such as COVID-19!
  • #3:  People learn to listen more acutely to each other. They learn to take turns and check in with each other and can show appreciation more instantaneously – using emoticons or typing in appreciative comments into the chat pods. More voices can herd through the chatting function. even side conversation s can happen without interrupting the group at all through ” private chats”  We learn to be kinder to each other.
  • #4: We save the planet (sustainability). Also noted above.  We just have to be careful about not storing files in too large a format (e.g., audio only if we do not really need to see video; compressed files or reduce attributes of audio files to preserve speaking audio quality but not set it at music audio quality). This way we reduce data storage needs. Google  apparently has worked on energy efficient data storage centers since their start-up.
  • #5: Facilitators learn to be more succinct and focused to keep people’s attention. They need to keep calling on participant’s in different ways. inviting them to open their mics one at a time; inviting them to chat, fill out polls, etc. Participants learn to be more succinct also.
  • #6: Facilitators find ways to optimize being on-line… like “Let’s all “step away” to watch a relevant YouTube video for 2-5 minutes, or read a google doc and simultaneously add dats to the doc.  You can also have participants answer several questions simultaneously and obtain lots of data in a very short time.
  • #7: No one is without resource material because you can provide links to the resources pages right in the virtual room for instant downloading, screen sharing or sending them out to an e.g., Google docs.
  • #8: People get to easily mix and share ideas with total strangers by “plopping” them together into a breakout room in less than 2 seconds.  Participants get used to being randomly mixed up by the technology. It is easy for the facilitator to give the “you have 5 minutes left” simultaneously to every small group through the Brake out room  message broadcast system. facilitators can also pop into rooms very quickly and “listen in” or answer questions briefly and then leave instantly.
  • #9:  Report outs of results go quickly in some platforms such as Adobe Connect because facilitators can set up a virtual room in advance that has break out room pods results even before they are written. when people come back from BO rooms, all all their thinking is already assembled in one room for everyone to see.  i have not quite figured out how to dothis with Zoom or other platforms. ideas welcomed!
  • #10: Each person can listen to their own music at their own volume when doing a reflection exercise. A customized learning experience!

Obviously, I have not talked about the down-sides, yet I am amazed at how jazzed I remain about this new way of interacting. It is fun, creative and gets results faster than anything I’ve seen. Done well, it actually is more humanizing than dehumanizing.

Where are you on the spectrum of getting onboard with offering or trying out a truly engaging virtual facilitation? if you need help, luckily and finally in 2002, there is much help available.

Now you have so many offerings …

Many of you are telling us that now you don’t know where to start or which courses to take in your ongoing journey toward globally competent facilitator. Since we’ve been developing our virtual trainings, it is (a bit) like going to one of those huge self-serve grocery stores in North America and there are too many choices! So you walk out with nothing or items which you did not really need.   Oops – we too forgot to tell you how to navigate your way through the many choices we offer.

When you are thinking about taking new courses or mentoring, etc., related to online facilitation, it is good to ask yourself, “What set of competencies am I trying to build?”

Here are a few competencies you might want to consider from the international IAF and ToP certification programs (4th one slightly modified):

  • Manage positive client relationships
  • Create a participatory inclusive environment
  • Evoke the creativity of the group
  • Use  a range of facilitation methods and tools  effectively
  • Model a positive professional attitude
  • Orchestrate quality events
  • Produce effective results.

Here are a few resources we can recommend on our site and others: 

Want better meetings?  Criteria: I have some experience – I am pressed for time – want to learn  on my own time – try our Meetings that Rock LIGHT (beginners) or Meetings That Rock ESSENTIAL  intermediate) virtual online intensive course

Want more depth methods? I have some experience – have time and like to learn with others (several days in a row) ICA Associates course.

Want more general (not about on-line) tools/theory? I know some things – I like to learn on own time through reading – try our eLearning modules.

I’d love to see a March 2020 demo of how to use tools in online facilitation by Martin Gilbraith and Judy Rees of the UK: Online demo

Barbara MacKay

Barbara loves “everything facilitation”. She thinks BIG! She loves working with other facilitators around the globe to create transformational results for client groups. She loves teaching others how to do that. She loves presenting at global facilitator conferences. She loves certifying new professional facilitators. If you also love what process facilitation can do for the world, connect with her – virtually or in person. She believes facilitation processes, used well, will provide the roadmap to a more just and sustainable world.

1 Comment

  1. Elaine Phillips on January 28, 2014 at 4:06 pm

    This was great to read Barbara! I was presuming virtual facilitation was like the webinars you described, but now I can see the potential! Thanks!

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