How to give people in online groups space to think

What you can do before and during a workshop to give people in online groups a space to think

Let’s look at this from a couple of perspectives, from helping online groups with their pre-workshop preparation, as well as what we can do within the workshop.

Pre-workshop thinking

In terms of pre-work, often I set up an online project hub using a platform called Trello.

I use Trello for providing access to project-related documents that the group may be involved in. It also has the functionality to enable participants to introduce themselves to each other online, and pose some questions about the process.

Trello is simple to use and keeps all your project information in the one place, which means participants don’t have to go searching through their emails to find the information and communication relevant to your project or workshop.

There’s another app I use called Slack, which is targeted more towards people who primarily use their mobile phone to access information.

Within workshop thinking

Another valuable way to people in online groups to do their thinking is using breakout rooms.

This works really well in Zoom. Breakout rooms are fantastic as they enable more participative and involved conversations to occur, making it easier for everyone to be heard, in the same way as you would do in a face to face facilitation space.

In online breakout rooms you’ll see a lot of energy released. That’s because leading into this, people have often been sitting at their computer, waiting for something to say and not having the chance to do it. So when they get into the breakout rooms there’s going to be lots of things happening, with lots of people wanting to talk.

After many online workshops, I’ve developed the MAX4MIN2 rule. This decrees that any breakout room should contain a maximum of four Online groupsparticipants and each should be given a minimum of two minutes each to talk.

Any more than four people tends to lead to people competing for space to talk, resulting in disengagement, low levels of listening and frustration.

Make the task clear

The key here is to give each person the chance to say one thing each in their time together. To make this possible you’ll need to provide clear and concise instructions beforehand. If you’re using a tool like Zoom, you can:

  • Pop up instructions on a slide using the screen share function
  • Go old-school and write your instructions on a flipchart
  • Put it in the chatbox
  • Verbalize it

Sometimes not everyone will remember the instructions for the task, so it may also be worth getting participants to take a screen shot of the task, so everyone is clear and they can jump straight into it once they’re in their groups.

If you’re going with the MAX4MIN2 rule, one question is an elegant sufficiency. Going beyond that is not going to work, simply because of the energy release that’ll be going on and the desire of participants to talk. If you’re absolutely fixated on wanting more than one question answered by the breakout groups, either:

  1. Give them more time; or
  2. Run multiple breakout sessions

A simple process is a good process for online groups

This may sound kind of radical, but silent moments in workshops are an effective and simple tool to help participants to do their thinking. Who would have thought?

I mentioned in an earlier post that I started off in facilitation as a shiny object person – wanting energy, fun and excitement all the time. And it can really annoy the crap out of people!

If you really want to help a group to do its thinking, then de-process your workshop. Take steps out, strip it down, halve content and slowing things down. This can be really valuable to help people to do the cognitive stuff because there’s a lot going on in that online environment as it is.

Silence is your friend

This is with a big thanks to Viv Waters, Johnny Moore and Lee Ryan. I’ve been doing some training with those guys and they’re really big fans ofOnline groups silent moments.

They encourage people to take out this old tool, I’m not sure if you’ve heard it, the pen and paper and have some silent time just to write down their ideas and thoughts relating to the workshop topic. It is massively effective in our hyper-stimulated environments.

BIG tip on silence!

I would also strongly suggest during this time don’t play music.

Read that again.

Don’t play friggin’ music.

It’s distracting for the people who have a strong auditory learning preference – basically, it’s going to drive them nuts.

It’s just another noise and what we need to be doing is creating a space where they’re not distracted. If you think it’s fun and it’s groovy and you really like it, put on some headphones and have a silent disco.

Silent moments are just that. Ditch the music.

Other ideas to help people in online groups to do their thinking

Another one that comes from the work of Viv, Johnny and Lee is suggesting to give people some thinking time by either turning off or covering their cameras. This reduces the visual stimulation we experience in the online space and gives our brains the chance to make sense of things.

Another idea to consider using is my soon to be patented 50% rule. The 50% rule encourages people to be concise in how they articulate their thinking – i.e. use 50% less words than you normally would.

If you usually take a long time to verbalize your thoughts, or if you want to provide all the detail, the online space is not the place to be doing that because it’s such an intense environment.

My encouragement is always for participants to be think about what they want to say and then be really clear, articulate and concise and precise in the way they express it. That’s going to help everyone else. Sounds cruel. It sounds tough. But it will help the whole of the group.

Further resources

Here’s the podcast version for you to download and listen to or share

PS – me and my facilitation bestie, the 500% fab Cynthia Mahoney are running your Facilitators Summer School, starting in late January 2021. First up will be ‘Facilitate Standout Online Experiences.’

It’s a four module program, held live over four weeks to help you to build, utilise and adapt your people skills into the online environment – especially when working with online groups.

Looking forward to seeing you there 😀

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Andrew Huffer

Andrew Huffer has over 25 years experience in working with organisations, businesses, managers and communities and at a state, national and international level. He designs and delivers specialist engagement processes, with a focus on facilitating open decision making processes and skill development of clients. He has delivered presentations and workshops at a number of state, national and international conferences.

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