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Virtual facilitation #6: Encouraging constructive conversations online

If you put your participants into breakout rooms, you can’t expect great conversations online to break out automatically. 

They might, but equally might not. And this is an instance where you need to take even more care in an online world than when facilitating at a f-2-f conference or workshop event.

For more on creating engagement in groups read…How to create engagement in virtual meetings – Virtual facilitation #5

In the latter, there’s much more going on before, during and after the breakout session that helps guide participants while they are in their smaller groups. When you put them into a virtual room, that’s their sole focus for the next few minutes – so your instructions need to be clear, and the use of their time needs to be relevant.*

I was, for example, very disconcerted this week to suddenly find myself in a virtual-room pair with someone I didn’t know and neither of us had a clue how long we were going to be there. Awkward! This happened simply because the facilitator had forgotten to mention how long that conversation would be lasting. 

Giving people an appropriate topic or activity in their breakout rooms is just as important. Think about how we usually start a conversation with someone we’re meeting for the first time (or even how we ease back into a more familiar relationship). There are conventional, “safe topics” to begin our conversations. In Britain it’s about the weather, work or perhaps sport. Those are therefore good topics online too.

You might also choose to invite a brief dialogue about current circumstances – ‘What are you noticing about the online world?’ or ‘What’s most different for you over the past few weeks?’

These don’t need to take too long – but serve to draw us into feeling more comfortable about sharing more freely and deeply when the substantive topics come along later.

What’s been working well for you to get your calls off to a great start?

*I say relevant because while break-out rooms can be fun, like any activity used by a facilitator, they should serve a purpose and your participants should feel safe in that space.

Which we’ll go into in more detail in the next post… How to start your virtual meeting – Virtual facilitation #2

Meanwhile, what do you think are the basic competencies for facilitating an online group call or webinar?

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