How to facilitate a dialogue remotely

A dialogue is best held face-to-face but it can also be very successful through remote connections. For most participants, attending a dialogue online, remotely, may be a bit challenging and uncomfortable, but it also has some advantages. In this blog text, we will share what we have learned so far about online dialogues and what you should consider when facilitating a dialogue remotely. We hope it will encourage you to try and learn to facilitate dialogues remotely!

Remote connection challenges the attention span and changes your relationship with other participants

People have only a limited capacity to process information. Therefore, all our interactions are steered by what captures our attention. Where our attention is directed is often dictated by habit and earlier experience. When we sit down with a computer or smartphone, the routines we operate – browsing the net, social media or checking e-mails – can easily steal our attention when we are supposed to concentrate on the other people we are engaging with online.

Devices let us do many things simultaneously while we are communicating with others. In addition, we may receive notifications on our screens on multiple devices and this also disrupts our concentration. Such momentary lapses in attention make it more difficult for us to concentrate on other people and can become a barrier to participating in a high-quality dialogue.
As social animals, our preference is to pay attention to people who are physically close to us. We tend to be aware of their reactions, consciously and unconsciously. The attention others pay to us – how they see and understand us – is particularly important to us. When we are in a physical space with someone else, we exchange much information between each other through body language, facial expressions, and gestures. We will find it easier to enter “the same space” mentally with someone if we also sharing the same sensory experience: the temperature of the room, the coldness of the floor, the amount of light streaming through the window.

Instead, when connecting remotely, we are all in our separate physical, and therefore also mental, bubble. This is like navigating a social space half-blindfolded. Some people may not be as fully present for us as they would be when face-to-face and we cannot obtain all the feedback that physical proximity would allow. Therefore, it may take longer for participants in an online dialogue to establish a natural and safe connection with each other.

For these reasons, it is important for the facilitator of a dialogue to bear the above in mind. A facilitator can ensure the success of a dialogue by being aware of the specific challenges created by remote connections and supporting the participants as appropriate. This mainly means directing the participants’ attention to what is essential to the dialogue and supporting the formation of safe human relations in the new environment of devices.

Prepare your participants for the use of the digital tools

The use of technology often causes hassle and frustration. Therefore, it is important to ask your participants to familiarise themselves with the platform and to test it in advance. Go through the main features and functions of the platform at the start of the dialogue. It is also useful to have clear guidance on when the cameras should be turned on and off. Also agree how the possible chat function should be used (for example, for making comments or writing down own ideas). Ask all participants to turn off all other devices, programmes, and windows and to focus on the dialogue and each other. With these preparations, the participants will be better able to focus their attention on what is essential to the dialogue and be less distracted by other devices.

Keep your facilitation clear

An online dialogue is facilitated more or less like a face-to-face dialogue. However, it is particularly important to keep your guidance clear. Remind the participants of the dialogue etiquette (e.g. Timeout rules), the duration of the discussion and its aims. Also agree on the confidentiality of the discussion. Tell the participants how they should ask to speak and how to pass the floor to others (“That concludes what I have to say”, “What do you think?”, etc.). You may find that balancing the conversation to include even the more quiet participants is more difficult online than face to face. It is good idea to tell everyone as part of the “housekeeping” that as a facilitator you may need to cut long comments short to ensure that everyone can participate equally.

Support relationship building

Many people find remote participation awkward and distancing. If participants’ names are not showing, ask everyone to write down the names of all the participants. You can also encourage a sense of intimacy by asking the participants to imagine that they are sitting in a circle even though they are staring at the screen. To begin with, it is useful to call the participants by their name frequently: “Now that we have heard what Tim and Jane had to say, we will move on to Mark and Anna. Go ahead Mark.” Repeating the names helps the participants to focus on each other and strengthens the experience that the others are genuinely engaging with you.

Help participants stay attentive

Remote dialogues are more exhausting for many than face-to-face meetings. As a facilitator, be prepared to use different methods to maintain the attention of the participants during the entire discussion. Switching cameras on and off usually momentarily perks up the participants’ attention, as they have to adjust their sensory perception. Use visual materials to liven up the discussion (images, infographics, short videos). Occasionally divide the group into breakout rooms of two or three and then bring the participants back together again. You can also let the participants contemplate a question independently and then ask them to share their thoughts with others. Take short breaks.

Encourage sharing personal experiences

As in face-to-face dialogue, it is useful to encourage the participants in an online dialogue to think about and share their personal experiences. Communicating through a remote connection can easily lead to heightened self-awareness, especially if we see our own image on the screen all the time. This may narrow down the freedom of expression and stifle the flow of conversation. Therefore, it is important for the facilitator to encourage “imperfect speech”, which means expressing ideas they have not yet thought through and sharing feelings and impressions even if they are still tentative and a bit unformed. The facilitator can lead by example and show what a freely reflective speech sounds like (“As I’m listening to you, I’m thinking that…).

Make sure everyone has an equal say

Dialogue is a setting in which the participants are consciously viewed as equals with the aim of adding to the freedom to express one’s own ideas and to listen to those of others. We sense equality or the lack of it in ourselves. In online dialogues, it is especially important to make sure that everyone feels equally seen and heard. One way to do this is to explicitly stress that you are interested in every participant’s thoughts and experiences. When you ask a question, ask every participant separately to answer. You can also ask each participant to join in and to comment on a participant’s ideas. The facilitator should also keep track of who has already had their say and who have been keeping quiet. If some participants have remained quiet for a long time, ask them directly to say what they are thinking about the ongoing discussion. This allows everyone to feel they are equally valuable parties to the dialogue, regardless of how much they speak.

Be merciful to yourself and share what you have learned with others

Many are still new to engaging in a dialogue online and we are not yet aware of all the possibilities of online encounters. This is something we all are still learning through trial and error and careful evaluation. Therefore, it is essential to keep up the shared learning process and for dialogue facilitators to exchange thoughts and experiences of online dialogues. Only through learning together are we able to gain deeper understanding of what remotely conducted dialogues can offer and what, on the other hand, is only possible when meeting people face-to-face in one physical space.

Think about it.

Or read more about dialogue.