Will Online Meetings Become a Whole New Offshoot of Facilitation?

Online Facilitation

All of us have experienced a new norm of online meetings. Like the split tree photo in this banner, I believe online facilitation will become as important and as normal as face-to-face meetings. Maybe even more so. Thus, our mission is to become as skillful facilitating in the online as the in-person environment. And, if you think you can just wait out the pandemic and blissfully go back to in-person meetings, you’re likely going to become less useful as a facilitator and leader. I challenge all of us to make our online meetings better than face-to-face. This blog takes some of the best work I’ve seen in the recent past, from many colleagues around the world. Six months ago, they rarely used online technology for training and process facilitation. We have entered a new era!

Let’s go back to the original field of in-person facilitation and ask ourselves, what do we already know? Some of my ToP colleagues in recent trainings include USA colleagues Kim Roth Howe, Eva Jo Meyers, author of Raise the Room, Alisa Oyler of Participation Works, Mary Flanagan of Strategy and Leadership, Seva Gandhi of ICA Associates, Singapore colleagues Loh Teck Kwang of Pareto Solutions and Grace Tan, The Netherlands colleague Mireille Beumer, and many others have influenced me and worked alongside me.

What does a meaningful, engaging meeting look and feel like in the face-to-face environment? (comments offered in a training by Kim Roth Howe and others)

The main things that people identify are:

  • purpose and outcomes are clear
  • usable knowledge, strategies and practices are accomplished
  • clear structure/agenda where everyone has an interest and way to contribute
  • engages every participant voice
  • good connection with others and the information shared
  • people really listen to each other
  • everyone feels safe, included
  • people are not distracted
  • everyone wants to participate
  • there are many prompts for critical and creative thinking

Read this list carefully again. Is there anything that you could not achieve in the online environment?

Although many will require careful planning, my answer is no. The trick is to practice and learn from what you see others doing. We are having almost a Renaissance era feeling with online meetings now. Facilitators and trainers everywhere are trying amazing things. They are thinking about what they do in-person and finding ways to adapt that in new platforms.

Planning an online meeting is like planning a dinner party. If you’ve never organized a multi-course meal for a larger group, it will feel daunting. How do you get all the courses prepped ahead of time? What dishes will you use and will you have enough? Where will you seat people before, during and after dinner? How will you keep the conversation going? How will you cater to all the different dietary needs? These are just a few of the questions I ask myself when I’m hosting a dinner. After giving a few dinner parties, it feels easier. It takes less time to plan and you worry less. It’s going to be the same with your online meetings. Once you design your “menu” (agenda) and choose your “dishes” (platforms and virtual tools), you will be able to trust the process.

The 3D effect vs. the 2D effect

I think one main difference between in-person and online meetings is what I would call the 3D effect vs. the 2D effect. Obviously, in an in-person meeting you have physical bodies and the energy that emits from these bodies which you do not have in the the online space. One of the first dilemmas is to replicate people’s energy fields and bring spirit into the online meeting. What can you do to create a different but third dimension in your next virtual gathering?

Here are three really helpful tips from my colleague, Mireille Beumer of The Netherlands. After these tips, we’ll share a series of images (screenshots of online activities I’ve seen or tried recently). I’ve tried to be careful about not revealing any sensitive content. My intent is just to give you inspiration and examples of the wide variety of ways you can use the online environment to replicate an engaging, meaningful meeting as noted in the bullet points above. It’s just a beginning and I’d love your feedback on what you are doing that is helping online meetings become a whole new offshoot of facilitation.

#1 Create Connection Between Participants Before You Go Into Content

This is a principle of accelerated learning I learned decades ago. People need to connect with each other and with the why, what and how of the content before you introduce the actual content. This can be done with pre-work which is part of the asynchronous tip #3. This can also be done with meaningful energizers and openers at the beginning of the meeting. And, this can be achieved at the beginning of every new topic by asking relevant questions, using lots of kinesthetic, visual activities and putting people into small groups.

#2 Active Brains are Engaged Brains

Everyone needs to realize that they have an important piece of the puzzle. They need to know that they represent a unique perspective that no one else in the group has. And this is achieved most easily through a relevant sharing of knowledge with each other near the beginning of the meeting in round robin format or small group format. For example, if you’re doing an environmental scan such as the image below, you can put people into four small groups and assign them each one of the four trend categories, i.e. Trends on the Horizon, Emerging Trends, Established Trends, and Disappearing Trends. It’s important to give people some intrapersonal time to think about trends in their field before they get into small groups. This can be done as asynchronous work or quiet brainstorming time using traditional pencil and paper to give them a break from using the screen.

Other ways to engage people other than those in Tip 1 are asking good questions. For example, “What is going to get in the way of achieving this outcome?” See obstacles workshop screenshot below. We had every person brainstorm individually answers to this question. We encouraged them not to use words that were blaming or related to scarcity of time or money. We then had them each go to a separate Miro board link where they were assigned a breakout room space. in this assigned space, they posted ideas on virtual multi-coloured sticky notes. When we came back together as a large group, we had them build themes amongst the ideas, i.e. the larger purple sticky notes named the common themes. We helped them get away from the unhelpful phrase “lack of” by posting examples of helpful negative adjectives to describe their block or obstacle (see bottom right corner of this image).

Other examples of engaging the group both visually and kinesthetically are shown in the image below to overcome the obstacles addressed in the earlier image. By the way, this is using the ToP Strategic Planning model. At some point, in large group work, some people might disengage. In the online environment you can break them into small groups very quickly and send them away to take all the ideas of one section, and name the overarching strategic goal (e.g., they post their suggestion into the top yellow triangle). This reengages people and you can then check for consensus when people come back to the main group. We find it’s more important than ever to find ways to keep people engaged and active in the online environment. There is so many potential distractors such as answering email and text messages.

#3 Use the asynchronous environment to enrich the synchronous activities

Mireille asks a good question, “Why are we trying to do everything together in one meeting?” What if we help people do a lot of thinking ahead of time and allow them to ask questions, come up with ideas, and connect with each other asynchronously? If this became an expectation, then everyone would know they would have to arrive to the meeting better prepared. One new technology that I’ve just learned about, is Loom videos. You can create a short annotated video of your presentation and send it ahead of time. The presentation might simply give an overview and the key questions you are going to address. This technology allows you to ask questions of the participants and get some feedback ahead of the session. An ideal way to use it would be to test whether or not you have the right questions in the meeting. Another way to use it might be to screen share your virtual layout to let people know how they will be expected to participate and ask them what support they would need to participate in this way before they arrive. You could also use the Loom video for the post meeting follow-up and evaluation of how the meeting went.

Or, you can do your check-in conversation asynchronously – for example, you could send people to your Miro / Mural / Google Jamboard / Google Slides and give them an assigned space and invite them to have them have an asynchronous conversation together. See an example here…

In this exercise below looking at stage of change, we had people think about what part of the change curve they had experienced recently in work or life as a precursor to thinking about how change has occurred in their own workplace. Although we did it at the beginning of the meeting to get people relating to the topic, we could easily have sent it ahead of time with a short Loom video explaining the change curve (see tip 2 above). In this case, the purpose of the asynchronous time is to warm up people to the topic and make them want to attend.


I’d like to come back to the question of adding that 3rd dimension that can be missing in online meetings if not intentionally created. You will unlikely succeed in capturing people’s mood or spirit in an online meeting if you only stay as a large group without personal connection time. The 3rd dimension has to be created by having a very respectful check-in question that allows people to be heard and seen. They can answer it by typing into the chat or onto a virtual post-it note, and saying something verbally. You can remind people to listen very carefully to each other, to not multi-task. This piece is critical to the productivity of the meeting. One way I’ve seen it done is do 2-3 quick breakout sessions where you spend 3-5 minutes with 2-3 other people answering a question. And, the second and third round are done with different questions and different people. This gives everyone a chance to have a meaningful conversation with at least 4-8 other people before the meeting content begins. And, here’s the advantage of the online environment – you can do it much more quickly than in an in-person meeting.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line I think is, always ask yourself, how can I help people stay engaged with the topic and each other? Your job is to figure out how to bring a special feeling of camaraderie and support to your online meetings. There are hundreds of ways to do it. Unfortunately, we don’t have anymore time to share more today! BUT, for more ideas, check out our Facilitator Generosity Library, the section on online meetings.

And, We’ve created a Google Doc link that you can add ideas to here. We’ve started the doc with one more fun activity to get people to laugh and joke together at some point in the meeting suing a new feature of Zoom. Please be careful about what you share in this Google doc, that attribution is given where it is due. Please remember not to alter anything that someone else has entered. I look froward to hearing from you in this exciting new branch of facilitation.

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.


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