The Craft of Facilitating Online

One of the questions I am exploring with a group of students at Aarhus University is how I have transformed my practice from facilitating groups face-to-face to the pandemic practice of being virtually based….what theoretical models have helped me to do this. Initially my response was that I do not really have a theoretical base for my work, and then I was baking, and I realized that much like a skilled baker, I can adapt, add spices, change timings, but there are certain things that have to be put in place for the magic to happen. So this is my attempt to explain some reasoning behind some of the things that I do as a facilitator (often without conscious thought)

Experience not Theory

Once you have opened your session just get started! If you need to deliver content and provide detailed overviews about your speakers why not do this in advance? People can choose to watch. Aim to get people talking and connecting with each other within minutes by using the chat, polls, breakout rooms or annotation tools (and thanks to Phil Walsh for his tip on using WordSearch as a way of helping break the ice!)

I learnt early on my career the importance of stepping aside so that people can get on and participate and the work of Christine Hogan and frequent inspiration from the World Cafe movement helped me to develop my thinking on this further. We must give groups the opportunity to experience virtual collaboration and provide easy to understand instructions and then stop talking and let the magic happen!

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Space to Think

Some people find it easy to think whilst they are talking. Many others need a bit of thinking time first. The advantage of providing a structured period of time in first is that you will get richer conversation and content. It is easier to do in the online room. I simply invite people to turn their cameras off and spend 1-2 minutes getting their thoughts prepared. Then move to the breakout groups.

The principles behind this hold true in the virtual space, and you can read more about it here in our blog Not Everyone Wants to Talk First

Hierarchical Planning

One of the first formal facilitation training sessions I attend was based on the work of John Heron. One of the models that has stuck with me from that session was the idea about different styles: hierarchical, cooperative and autonomous and how important it is to choose the right style for the dimension you are working in. You can read some more about the model here and for me the essence of this is deciding when I need to use my power over a group and when I can release that power. We often think that hierarchical power is wrong but in my experience the facilitator using that power initially in a facilitated session helps to create a safe working space so that the group can become more autonomous over time.

My facilitation practice is based on a process approach, I am not involved in therapeutical facilitation so having structure and giving clear guidelines helps the group to get their work done. Online collaboration is still unfamiliar to many and so in my experience we need as facilitators to use our hierarchical power to create supportive structures and to make the space feel safe.

Equality of Contribution

Online collaboration should provide a space where everyone can contribute. This is where timing on contributions can be so important. If your breakout session is only 15 minutes and there are 5 people and the first person talks for 10 minutes then the rest of the group have less than 2 minutes. I wish more facilitators would use their maths wisely and work out timings that make it possible for everyone to contribute AND then use an actual timer to make it happen.

For formal events I now have a set of neat timers that sit above my head to give a visual reminder of time

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Orientation: Positive and Possibilities

Online sessions are often short and can be very draining. We can help avoid the drain by choosing questions wisely. Go for questions that explore positive experiences and that encourage possibilities. If you are new to facilitation then explore the theory of appreciative inquiry to gain valuable insights into the power of positively framing questions

Harvesting Data

I love the idea of Harvesting and have borrowed it from the work of the World Cafe movement. What this means is thinking about what you want to do with the “stuff” generated at the end of the session. Sometimes harvesting can be left to individuals, they can take away new connections and ideas, but usually a more purposeful harvesting of the data can help people to see different connections than they first thought and can help a team to move forwards.

Using digital tools can really support the harvesting process. Tools like Mentimeter and Vwall mean that everyone can post their comments anonymously and you can quickly share the results at the end.

Building On Line Facilitation Practice

My experience has taught me that what is critical to the success of an online facilitated event is using the skills of a professional facilitator to help shape the process, humanize the technology and create structures that work. Being a digital expert helps but the thing that really stands out is the craft of facilitation and the core of this remains the same as it was during our face to face practice.

Avoiding the Facilitator Vanity Trap

The new world of virtual facilitation has given us an ever-growing selection of shiny tools to choose from. It is easy to get over-excited about the options and create confusion for participants by adding more and more tools to demonstrate our amazing ninja skills in the digital world. I am definitely guilty of this at times. So…. how can we avoid falling into the facilitator vanity trap? How do we make sure that we are using the right tools that will support people get to their desired end point easily?

I am going to share with you five questions that will help you facilitate using a “less is more” approach

Five Ways of Swerving Facilitator Vanity

1. Am I competent in this tool?

Facilitators have a Magpie tendency. We hear someone else mention a tool or technique and we are off onto Google to look it up, sign up for a free trial and then find a way to use it.

Whilst experimentation is valuable we owe it to both our participants and the designers of the tool/process to have road tested it first. We run regular “Playshop” sessions in our team where any of our facilitators can test out a tool or process that they are considering. We do our best to “break” the tool and to simulate what happens when someone does something random.

We need to be sure that we know how the digital platform works, and have explored all the functions before we take this into a live group situation. It is very easy for groups to lose confidence in the virtual platform when the facilitator is stumbling.

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2. Do we need a report or formal output?

Some times the purpose of an event is to bring people together, to facilitate them to build a connection and then to leave them to make things happen. These are the types of events where previously you might have just taken a few photos of the post-it notes, circulated these and that was the post-production work done.

On the other extreme we might be facilitating events that will help our client create a roadmap, complete a consultation or develop a new set of ideas for the company’s future innovation focus. In these situations it is vital to be able to capture information in the right format.

V-wall is one of our favourite tools for events where capturing the participants individual thoughts is important. It is one of the easiest tools for everyone to engage with and the report is generated within minutes post event into Word so that it can be easily read by other stakeholders. Mural, a tool we love for many events, is much harder to generate a quick report from, it is a more messy process and not ideal for sharing with other stakeholders. Mentimeter bridges the 2 tools and is an easy to use process with output that can be exported and added into a formal summary report.

3. Do we need to gain consensus?

After a process of idea generation it is easy for a group to be overwhelmed by the quantity of ideas. Most facilitators will help the group to navigate through the output with some kind of prioritization method.

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This will often start with clustering of similar ideas and then some form of prioritization will need to be put into place. This could be dot voting or it could be a discussion where participants use coloured cards to show whether they agree with the proposals.

We have found Dotstorming to be a useful tool for participants to post ideas, comment on ideas and finally vote on ideas. Vwall also has facilitator tools that help structure the clusters into voting. But just because you can cluster and prioritize does not mean that this is the most appropriate thing to do. It takes a lot of time, and you may decide to simply let participants to pick out verbally the elements that they find most relevant to the challenge being addressed or for some events we have left the participants to prioritise after the event.

4. Am I just using this tool to impress the group?

This happened recently when I wanted to impress a client by using Mural because they were data scientists and I knew that they would easily pick up the skills to use Mural and would enjoy interacting with it in the focus groups. But because this was a focus group process, reporting was vital and the project team needed a quick, robust report output. I know that Mural is awful at that!

We used Vwall which looks old-fashioned and did not have the “wow” factor with the group for being cutting edge technology, but it has an excellent reporting functionality, so we could quickly and easily share the content with all the stakeholders.

5. Can I make it any simpler?

The final question challenges us to review the process and tools again and to work out if we can make it any easier.

One question I often ask is whether it is possible to just use functionality within the meeting platform? I recently joined a networking session with other facilitators and the Zoom polls, the Zoom chat and the breakout rooms was enough tech for the purposes of this event.

I have supported a colleague who is a more traditional classroom based trainer to convert her programmes online. We tried various methods and decided that what worked well was using a physical flipchart in her Zoom window, so she could write up the feedback from her group and then share them as a photograph in the chat. She felt confident doing this, the participants like the change in focus and the end result was as effective as trying to use the whiteboard or other digital tools

Using these 5 questions will help you to check whether the tool/process is right for the group and what they want to achieve. It will help you to avoid falling into the facilitator vanity trap and choosing a tool which you are attracted to and which makes you feel good!

To find out more about our digital work check out our website:

Are Facilitation and Training the Same Thing?

The term facilitator is used to describe people who may be doing very different roles. This confusion can mean that expectations are not met, and people find group processes frustrating. Our team of facilitators are experts in process facilitation, and sometimes we might facilitate some training but although the two things are similiar…they are not interchangeable roles at all.

Facilitative Training

Many clients seem to prefer the word facilitator to trainer and this can be confusing. We use the term “facilitative trainer” to describe situations where there is prepared content for the session and the trainer is using methods that are “facilitative”. This could involve participants working in groups on learning activities and will usually involve discussion sessions in the whole group that are facilitated so they keep on time and the task. There will usually be theoretical content, delivered in an interesting and engaging way so that participants can use the learning outside the workshop format in their working lives.

In a training session the participants will expect by the end of the workshop to have learnt something new and to have been taken through materials which have been designed in advance eg slides and handouts.  The learning could be related to the development of skills in leadership, diversity or learning how to solve problems.

Process Facilitation

By contrast a process facilitator has no theoretical content that they are expected to cover. They will work instead with a road map for the workshop. There will be a clear destination defined and the group will work together to find the best way to reach that destination. The facilitator will design structures to encourage participants to talk to each other, to reach consensus, to avoid group think and to make action plans together.

If a process facilitator was tasked to facilitate a leadership session the destination might be about making real tangible change in the leadership style in the organisation, however the facilitator will not defined what that change will be like, this is defined by the participants who will be supported to come to a consensus about leadership style. They could create a shared vision for leadership in the organisation and from this identify what needs to stop/start/continue happening so they can achieve this vision.

The facilitator will ask questions and suggest structures to help the group to share views and make some decisions, but they will not offer “models of Leadership” or present any theoretical overviews of Leadership approaches. The focus of the work is about how to create a change in the organisation and its leadership and the people in the group are the right people to make this change.

Not Better: Just Different

Process facilitation is different to training. Both facilitators and trainers focus on outcomes that are agreed in advance with clients. Both will design activities that will engage the participants in the outcomes. The difference is in the type of outcomes –process facilitators work with the group to achieve progress on an agreed challenge. The facilitative trainer is working towards outcomes that will help people to learn about the topic so they can choose to change their approach in the future.

Process Facilitation OutcomesTraining Outcomes
Agree on the focus areas for the next 6 months for the project teamUnderstand the importance of setting project targets and reviewing these
Create a draft of the 2025 team strategyExplore different methods for writing team strategies
Make connections with potential collaborators for ongoing projectsDevelop networking skills and reflect on techniques to build collaborative relationships

If you want to have a chat with us about whether a process facilitator or a facilitative trainer is best suited to your needs just get in contact with us and we can explore what is best for you.