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!

Photo by Tobias Bju00f8rkli on

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.