Avary: Welcome to Build Back Better, our section on virtual facilitation. This video will cover energy and flow.
Hello everyone. I'm Avary Kent, the co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer of Conveners.org and I'm excited to join you today with my colleague Michael Kass.
Michael: Hi everybody. I'm Michael and I'm the founder of Story and Spirit.
Avary: And today we are sharing with you our collaboration to work with you around virtual convening facilitation.
Michael: And one of the things that we really want to highlight in this chapter is the ways that facilitating in virtual environments actually is very different than facilitating in person.
Avary: The idea of recording these videos really came from our first cohort that we ran in this training, where we recognised that our time together for the workshop itself was so precious that taking up, you know, an hour or so of doing a lecture felt like an ineffective use of people's time.
Michael: Yeah and if we think about how people interact in virtual environments - and we we're talking, we're going to talk in a moment about energy and flow - we want to engage people as much as possible. And we find that, especially when working together online, that one-to-many interactions, these lectures, tend to lead to less engagement than conversations in small groups.
Avary: And we've also found that, unlike before Covid, people are actually willing to watch videos before a session. I know that that was absolutely a struggle to get people to do pre-work in the past. We have found that that attitude has shifted. Not to mention that new online tools that allow you to watch videos at 1.5 or 2x speed have been really helpful for folks who are trying to get through a lot of content.
So for this video, we're going to focus on energy and flow.
So Michael, as I shared with you earlier today, one of the things that came up for the first time for us in a call was we had a participant who had just lost a family member to Covid-19 in New Jersey, and another one who had recently lost their mother.
And so one of the things that we are being aware of and kind of conscientious to is that the more we do check-ins and the more that we pass through this pandemic grief and loss, and other kind of major pitfalls for folks, are going to rise up and be really present.
And I think one of the worst things we could do as conveners would be to just brush over those and act as if people aren't in a kind of depth of feeling. So I'm curious if you want to share practices that you've had from other workshops around how we can help our community in
facilitating in a way that navigates humanity.
Michael: Absolutely. I think one of the things that I've found, especially over the last few weeks, is that there's a little bit of tension that develops between making space for that humanity and really honouring it, and getting totally distracted from the thrust of your gathering, right?
And so one of the things that I found really useful is when somebody shares, that kind of hitting pause. And one of my favourite practices is just having everybody in the group take a deep breath together and let it out. To acknowledge the gravity and the depth of feeling that's present. And then gently inviting the group to say something like, you know, accepting that this is our reality right now. And also we can hold it and still honour our agenda moving forward.
And then I always ask permission of the person who's just shared, "Does that feel okay to you?" like, "Do you feel okay to move forward?" Because sometimes honestly people's time might be better spent not on the call. And I always want to honour that as well.
I'm curious. Those are the big ones for me and it's really less about the tools and more just the sense of the space being created as a facilitator well.
Avary: And I think that concept of consent ends up being really important, because sometimes when you're grieving, actually what you want is the distraction of work, and you don't want to dwell on it, and you don't want the group to be fixated on you. And so making sure you have the consent of the person who shared.
One thing we ended up doing today which was I thought was really beautiful from my colleague Jess was asking the person if they'd like to share a quick story about the person that they'd lost. And that that made it feel really touching. And also gave us space for sharing that didn't feel like it was going to bleed or overrun the rest of what had brought everyone together, which was really powerful.
Michael: Yeah and I think just sort of, more generally, as a species, or as people who are also professionals, I think we're gonna have to become more comfortable with emotions in professional gathering spaces. Certainly for the next few months. Probably for the next couple of years. Because to deny the reality of what people are experiencing doesn't honour their full humanity. And that's ultimately what we're trying to do, regardless of, you know, the ultimate thrust of the convening.
Avary: Great. Another topic we wanted to cover was the concept of introductions. These are often tricky. They can sometimes feel either so truncated that you didn't actually get anything meaningful out of the time that was spent in it. Or they can feel overwhelming because they bleed over. They take way, way longer than we had anticipated.
And so wanted to both think up front when you're creating that container, really putting some buffer time around your introduction time allotment to make sure that folks, if they do go long, that's not going to derail the rest of what you have planned.
But the second is I think that power of really crafting your introduction question. And so Michael, that was something you had worked on with us you know before the last session.
Michael: Absolutely. I think the specificity of the question can help a lot. You know right? A general introduction question might be "How are you how are you feeling today? What's alive for you?" And that could go on for 15 minutes sometimes. Or if you want to invite people to not go that deep, "What's the most delicious thing you ate last week?" Just something personal.
And the other thing is that really looking at the purpose of the group that's coming together, and how long they'll be together. Because if I'm facilitating a meeting that'll be an hour and a half for 50 people and they'll never interact again, I actually don't really care if they know each other that well. It's not that important.
But if it's a group like this one where you'll be together for three sessions of three hours each, it really felt important to us to devote the time to giving you the chance to get to know each other a bit more.
Avary: And I think that plays off of, are you intending for the folks in your group to maintain connection or relationship outside of the specific session being run?
And I think that comes to what is fundamentally the purpose of introductions? We think of this in terms of our awareness alignment action framework, and part of the purpose of introductions is comfort. You want folks to be aware of who else is in the room. Especially if you're going to be asking them to share anything confidential or meaningful.
You know, we run meetings where oftentimes people are actually competitors with each other, and so they need to be really aware of who is in the room and how the information they're sharing is going to be used.
Versus something like Michael shared. Like you may have 90, 100 people on a call - and we had this happen with our rapid response call - where we had 100 folks on it on March 13th. And what we ended up doing was breaking people into just randomly assigned small groups, about eight people each, and they did deeper interactions among those eight.
But don't even attempt in a room of 100 to have everybody just read their name, and org and where they're based. That's going to be your entire hour right there. So breaking into those small groups at least gives you some sense of like, "Oh hey here's a few people in my pod." Without overriding everything to try to introduce everybody on the call.
Anything else you'd like to add?
Michael: Nope I think that that about covers it.
Avary: So step three is reading the room. So when we're in person together, a really gifted facilitator is able to read the room. One of the most awesome and powerful facilitation experiences that Sarah Joy and I had very early in the life of Conveners.org was with the Association of Enterprise Opportunity. We ran a CEO meeting of about 115 CEOs of various programs that were focused on economic development and equality. And we had about, I'd say, 90 minutes left in our day - day two - and we looked around the room and people were fried. They were done. They were full. They were, like they were just done.
And fortunately we had the trust and the buy-in of our client on this but we ended up calling it saying, "Hey guys guess what? There's a really awesome restaurant across the street. How about you go over there and hang out and eat some food and drink some drinks and just connect with each other we'll see you in the morning?" And they were like, "Wait, but isn't there
still more?" and we're like, "Yeah and you, you're good like let's do that."
That practice of reading the room gained us so much trust. Everybody showed up on time the next day ready to take it through to the finish line. And, of course, that time socialising was extremely valuable to them. It's not like they didn't talk about meaningful things relating to their work.
So how do we translate that kind of ability to read the state of people in a group virtually? It's a lot harder to do. I'm hoping you got an answer. I have no idea. I just had a fun story.
Michael: I know that was a great story. I have lots of fun stories about in person. Online is much harder because you can't read body language in the same way. If somebody's upset they'll probably just turn off their camera and go behind their chair and curse for a couple minutes and then either come back or not.
One thing that can be useful is if you have a couple of contacts or allies in the group. Kind of designate them and say, "Hey if something feels a little bit off to you or if you feel like the conversation wants to go in a different direction and I'm missing it, send me a private message" If you're on zoom.
Because some of the most powerful facilitation moments I've had have been moments when a group, the conversation wants to go in a direction that maybe wasn't on the agenda. And that will serve the group better than what I had planned.
In a room with people it's actually very easy to sense when that's happening. Less easy online, and so having people messaging you. And the other thing that I found valuable is if I get kind of an intuitive hit that something's up with the group, I'll just press pause for a second and say, "Hey I just want to check in. I went over that information really fast and I have a sense that it might have been confusing. So let's just take a moment and type some questions into the chat or let me know how I'm doing."
And people generally appreciate that pause, even if they don't have anything to share. Because it's a sense of, "Oh this person is facilitating rather than lecturing. They're actually at least making the attempt to listen to what the group needs." So that can help as well.
Avary: I think there's another flavour of the pause too, which goes back to this concept of consent and being able to check in with the group and say, "Okay it seems like there's some interesting energy around this question. Here are options: we could put that in a parking lot covered at the end, we could do it in a separate call."
Or acknowledge, "This is the stuff we were planning on covering for the rest of this conversation. Are you okay with that going into a parking lot or that being moved into another call?" And giving folks a sense of agency over which direction they're going to take can be really powerful.
Michael: Yeah I think that's really important because people, especially in online environments, are used to not having any agency at all right. They sign in and the normal way of interacting is either like a staff meeting or a webinar where you know they might go make a sandwich or have three other meetings. And the gathering goes I think is hugely impactful.
Avary: Yeah, and finally, things that don't work, really don't work in virtual environments.
Michael: It's rough.
Avary: So, you know in a room with partners you might be able to do some sort of like consensus building process around what the process is actually going to be for your group or what your agenda is going to be? That is really hard to do online. We highly recommend if you are trying to get stakeholder buy-in on an agenda or structure or timing or topics, do all of that up front, asynchronously, or in a prep call. Because once people arrive they need to know, "Okay you've got me. You're gonna hold me through this time, in this space, and I'm going to feel like I'm being well directed and well cared for."
When you open the can of worms of like, "Oh but is this really the right frame or right way to do this?" It just opens a can of worms that you can't easily close again.
Michael: Yeah. Agreed. And this, I think, highlights the importance of a lot of things we discussed in the first workshop, which is really doubling down on the preparation and homework of the purpose and the format and the objectives of the convening. So that you can choose the right formats and tools and forms of interaction for people up front, and not get in the quagmire of trying to design it on the fly during the gathering.
Avary: Totally. Not like this thing that's happening right now that you're watching.
Michael: Exactly. We're modelling, we're potentially modelling a thing that doesn't work really, really badly.
Avary: So on that note we're gonna end this video with our next step here. Oops. Which is baby animal photos. They're the best thing in the world.
Michael: So great.
Avary: You're definitely going to want to watch the next three videos we share with you because you're going to want to know, "What adorable baby animal will you put at the end?"
Anyway, thank you for watching. Next one is going to be focused on time management.
How to Navigate Human Connection
The one to many interaction (one person speaking to a group like a traditional webinar) can be helpful, but can fail to unlock the full potential of convening.
When thinking about online facilitation, reflecting on any lecture-based content and how to share that as pre-reading/pre-watching materials can help you to get the most out of your time together.
When possible, encourage participants to use their video.
This can be very helpful as a facilitator, as it gives you a better understanding of how people are showing up.
In this time of COVID-19, you may also find that the communities you work with are facing a lot of loss. It can be incredibly valuable to gain consent and create a space for honoring our shared human experience before moving onto the next element of your agenda.
When your goal is participant engagement, video, small group conversations, confidentiality, and storytelling are some of your most important tools.
Another core focus for energy and flow is how you open your session.
The role of introductions will differ, depending on how you intend for the community you are convening to connect with each other.
Will they connect again through future convenings? Or are you encouraging them to connect with each other outside of the sessions? Or will they never see or interact with each other again?
Depending on what you want to achieve, you can use introductions, and time-boundaries around the introductions, to create a shared awareness of who is in the group.
Reading the Room
Reading the room is the final element of energy and flow, and this is very difficult to do online.
People can turn off their camera or mute their microphone, and you may never know as the facilitator what their experience is.
It can help to have allies in the group who can let you know privately if you are missing something.
It also helps to pause and check in with the group.
Sharing consent and options for how to move forward, especially around what direction the group is going to take, can make a big difference in how people experience your event.
Things That Don’t Work
We’ve found that many challenges get exacerbated in the virtual environment.
Disconnection, distraction, process navigation, power dynamics – all of these areas can be more difficult to navigate virtually. One of the greatest challenges in online facilitation is around consensus and decision-making in the group.
We recommend almost all of the work around process consensus happens upfront and in pre-meeting calls.
We find that online facilitation requires significantly more upfront and follow-up work to achieve the same success that you could have with an in-person group.
To navigate power dynamics, start with mapping or understanding the power dynamics in the group. Then use techniques like virtual whiteboards, collaboration documents, or anonymous polls or chat. This enables participants to share their thoughts and opinions without having to be connected to their role or power position in the group.
How to manage your time for sessions to achieve your convening goals