Facilitation in Virtual Land

May 11, 2020


Facilitating virtual learning sessions effectively

The last fortnight of being confined at home due to COVID-19 has meant a host of trainings over virtual platforms. We’ve been experimenting with running facilitator led training sessions, for our own team at Navgati. Many organisations are inviting us to be part of their virtual learning platform ‘Train the Trainer’ processes. I also enrolled in an online learning course with Stanford university which is proving to be a wonderfully streamlined learning process.

A variety of learning goals and roles! All of them are making it clear that facilitating learning in the virtual world will require unlearning and relearning some key beliefs.

Here are my thoughts on what facilitators could do differently to make virtual facilitator-led learning effective:

1.Think very carefully about the intent of the session – Most of us will have no difficulty making virtual sessions work when it comes to dissemination of information. However, if you want to engage people’s thinking or nudge them into action, you will need to design very differently. E.g. I attended a global Train the Trainer session. A two-hour meeting, with over 50 participants logged in. You would think this should be enough time given that we were all familiar with the content?

Think again. We barely got to the 5th or 6th slide due to the technical glitches and participant questions (you can’t expect a group of facilitators to imbibe content quietly, can you?). It took many more sessions before all of us got trained.

The same day I attended a case discussion in a smaller group of 10. The facilitator used breakout rooms which worked very well and the insights generated were very powerful. So different strokes for different goals.

2.Structure the session tightly – Given that virtual meetings often have strict time boundaries, it is helpful to have a different balance between telling and asking. At Navgati, we’re used to working with the content that the group brings in, using powerful facilitative questions to draw out thinking and deepen insight. We’re learning that we can’t always replicate the same style in virtual facilitation.

Tighter structure would mean tailoring the batch size to the content, setting out sharper agendas, highlighting clear ground rules, using technology to monitor engagement on a fairly regular basis, keeping in check participants who could ‘hog’ the session and inviting those who ‘lurk’ in the background, reducing the content you facilitate by a third to keep time for you to manage the learning experience. Keeping up with most of the government strategies in dealing with COVID19, here is my take on a facilitation mantra ‘Down with democracy, we’ve got content to cover!’..:)

3.Flex your own style of communication – It is natural for facilitators to have a ‘signature’ style of communicating. I call it the ‘safety net technique’. For some it could be using our energy to move the group forward and for some it could be staying with the group till they feel settled about a topic before moving ahead. For some it could be using a lot of tell before getting the group to experience a concept while for some it could be having the group experience the concept first and then derive the learnings. The virtual world will push our ability to move in an out of all these styles depending on the content and the audience.

Signature styles will need examining and we will need to curb our natural instinct to slip into those based on what is happening in the group. The power of the facilitator here is in being a keen observer to the process and taking on an appropriate style. The only way to know what will work is by trial and error.

4.Be present to what is happening in the session – This takes on a whole new meaning in the virtual world. Group dynamics and human behaviour become a huge catalyst/deterrent to whether or not you achieve your goal. Especially in the days of social distancing, emotions are high and so are sensitivities. Fairness takes a whole new meaning. Am I being heard enough? Am I being given enough chances to speak up?

It’s not easy for participants in a virtual session to influence decisions such as who gets to speak, what is the order of speaking, what is the protocol to ask questions. This could open up a whole minefield of unintentional micro inequities that affect participation and learning.

I experienced this sense of powerlessness as a participant in a recent Navgati virtual training session. The video feature wasn’t working on my laptop and I missed the first few minutes where the group was getting warmed up. As the session progressed and everybody shared their point of view, the feeling that I was being ignored crept in and kept becoming stronger. I felt my ‘survival’ instincts kick in and it became about making the best point – to make myself sound smarter or make my point seem more valid.

Why did that happen? One possibility could be that in virtual discussions, one misses out on the many non-verbal cues of acknowledgment and validation (so the critical voice in your head gets stronger and the pressure to perform increases). Another could be that the greater difficulty in having your voice heard creates a sense of competition (those of you who have done a GD as part of your entrance exams will resonate).

If I experienced this in a group that I have worked with for over 3 years, with a strong sense of comfort and trust built in through multiple in person interactions, I wonder how this would play out for a new participant. What would be the best way for a facilitator to manage group dynamics in such a scenario? Also, how much responsibility of the group dynamic does the facilitator take?

Some practices I believe that could help answer some of these questions are:

Explicitly contracting at the beginning of the session (laying out rules for participation and inviting participants to weigh in on those)
Surfacing these possible psychological dynamics upfront (“it can sometimes feel to individuals like they are not being heard; as a group, what could we do to manage this?”)
We’re going to be experimenting with a few more ideas at Navgati and will share them here.

5.Be aware of the crucial role technology plays in your skill as a facilitator – In addition to facilitation techniques, a core skill in the virtual world is your understanding of the tool or platform where you are delivering training. Knowing what the tool has to offer, navigating it like a pro, using its features to add to the experience and making your life more manageable is critical.

Having a technical facilitator assisting you in the process works very well. In the online course at Stanford, there is a host for our sessions who sets the guidelines, plays timekeeper, sets up breakout rooms and also comes in strongly if anyone is taking away from the experience. The facilitator is only in charge of managing content delivery. I find this extremely useful as a participant. On a lighter note – all my animosity at getting muted in the midst of a monologue if I take too much time is directed towards the host and I am much more open to the facilitator and the learning!

Having a troubleshooting checklist for the platform that you are using and sharing it with the participants upfront may also help in a more seamless experience.

6.Be kinder to participants – All learning is a co-created experience. In facilitator-led virtual training, there is a third party contributing to the experience – which is technology. There are factors that affect your session far beyond the control of you or the participant. In a recent session I attended, I kept getting kicked off the meeting by the tool. I switched to another internet connection I had at home and stayed in the meeting for the whole hour.

What was interesting to me was that the facilitator was shocked to hear that my presence was being impacted by internet connectivity because that was something, she took for granted.

As a facilitator of virtual sessions myself, I can identify with a slight feeling of irritation when people log off and on or are unable to get their cameras working. I have to keep reminding myself to be kind…:)

Also, in the current situation, participants are often logging in from the confines of their homes. Some may have just finished a truckload of chores and hence feeling exhausted, some others may have logged on ‘because I have to’. Hence getting the group warmed up and disconnected from whatever is happening around them outside of the session takes paramount importance.

7.Be kinder to yourself – While technologies like Cisco’s Webex, Microsoft Teams and Zoom have been around for a while, they are really getting adopted at scale for learning right now. So there will be meetings that go badly, where you speak more than you should have, where you don’t speak enough, where participants feel ignored, where participants hijack and where nothing gets achieved.

We are all learning as we go along. Be aware of the sense of blame and disappointment that creeps up unannounced and as Elsa told us in Frozen – ‘Let it Go’.


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