Two months into lockdown and facilitating online deliberative discussions through a webcam is starting to feel a bit more normal. For many facilitators each experience of working online is bringing with it new learning about how best to run these processes.

Before lockdown the bulk of my experience had come at face to face events. Now I have facilitated more online processes, my reflections have coalesced around three themes:

  1. Things that stay the same
  2. Things that need adjusting
  3. Chances to be innovative

Things that stay the same

It’s inevitably tempting to focus solely on the ways in which facilitating and meeting people online is different to face to face: the space is different, the activities might be different, and there is even a new and alarming risk of forgetting your trousers. However, the starting point I found most helpful was identifying what has stayed the same. Firstly, the overall purpose of deliberative processes remains; it’s to help people have their say. That same purpose informs every decision about how we run and facilitate events online or face to face. Many of the key ingredients of good deliberation, like active and respectful listening, clearly communicated information and a well-designed plan, remain as important as ever.

Things that need adjusting

One aspect of facilitation that I found needed adjusting to work better online was what I do to get the conversation to flow more naturally. Initially, in online sessions it felt like the small groups were speaking more directly to the facilitator rather than to each other. That can position the facilitator at the centre of the conversation just extracting views from participants and it can take some of the life out of deliberation.

However, three key factors started to change that and redevelop that sense of proper group discussion: growing confidence online, letting participants start to facilitate themselves and allowing space for silence. Firstly, as participants became more comfortable with the technology they started to speak more to each other in a conversational way, and less directly to the facilitator. Secondly, a suggestion made by a fellow facilitator was to ask participants, when they had finished speaking, to choose who they would invite to speak next. This technique worked extremely well: rather than as individual cogs in a machine controlled by a facilitator, it helped participants to work together as a group.

Thirdly, I had to adjust for allowing more space for silence in discussions. Participants didn’t tend to respond to points made by each other quite as fast as in-person, perhaps for fear of speaking over each other.1 However, being patient in allowing silence and time to think gave participants space to have more engaging conversations uninterrupted by the facilitator. That growth in participant confidence and the two facilitation tweaks helped really bring discussions to life.

Chances to be innovative

Finally, I’ve had multiple conversations with different facilitators who have reflected on the value created face to face by a sense of energy and fun, and by forging a collective identity as a group. Participants getting to know each other and making connections is so important to deliberation.

I’m fascinated by some innovative facilitation techniques (and fun icebreakers) that are being discussed to make online fun for participants:

  • Asking participants to invite the next person to speak when they have finished to help avoid people talking over each other and encourage participants to ensure all their peers are heard.
  • Allowing participants to complete various tasks asynchronously at times that suit them.
  • Using virtual whiteboards or live shared documents to collaborate. Participants can create virtual post-its and share them on the whiteboard for the group to see, or they can use a platform like Google Docs to write down thoughts for everyone to see.
  • Inviting participants to share something from their home life to help others learn something about them. This could be a pet, a picture from a holiday or a tool you use every day. Whatever participants feel comfortable sharing. This can help participants build up empathy with each other.
  • Asking participants to share an image which shows how they feel about the topic being discussed, or just how they’re feeling that day.
  • Using music through videoconferencing tools to vary sessions. You can invite participants to choose music to be played at the start of each session, and even invite the rest of the group to guess who chose which piece of music.

You never stop learning as a facilitator and I am excited about what other innovations and developments in online facilitation there’ll be. If you’re a facilitator who is interested in discussing running processes online, please get in touch.

  • 1. Some participants reported that it was harder to read cues like body language online in order to tell whether or not someone had finished speaking.