How to facilitate effectively online?

Before I go into the tips and tricks of facilitation, I think it is important that we start by defining what we mean by facilitation.  Facilitation is a process by which you engage with your participants and encourage them to share their ideas and experiences.  Facilitation is not a one-way communication from the all-knowing leader to the participants! 

In other words, facilitation is NOT a lecture or a webinar where the presenter dispenses information with no interaction from the participants.  Instead, it acknowledges that everyone has something to contribute and it is a back and forth discussion and sharing of ideas that occurs between participants and the facilitator and among participants themselves to reach a deeper learning.

For example, as a facilitator you may share information or ideas on a certain topic such as “How to communicate effectively”, however, the learning that occurs is when you ask participants to then share their ideas and thoughts on the topic. 

Facilitation, when done effectively, can be highly impactful as participants are allowed to debate, discuss, and apply the topic.  Since they are not just consuming the information, the learning that occurs is more practical as they consider how the new information they are gathering from the facilitator and the other participants can be applied in their own lives.

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay.

So now let’s discuss tips and tricks of effective facilitation.  Here are the top five:

Tip 1:  Set the stage.  In order for a session to be effectively facilitated, it starts with the design of that session but also in setting the expectation of the participants.  Early on let the participants know that the session will be highly interactive and that everyone’s views and experiences are valid and respected.  Let the participants know that the learning is based on their willingness to share and try things out.  As a facilitator, you will model these behaviours and ensure you continue to hold a respectful environment for all to share.  Furthermore, you need to provide the participants some level of training, maybe in a checklist or short video format, to make sure they know how to log-on and check their devices, audio and video options on the platform you are using.  Asking them to log on a few minutes earlier can allow you to troubleshoot any technical issues that may arise and still be able to start on time.

Tip 2: Less is more!!  What I mean by this statement is that it is better for the facilitator to say less and to listen more.  To share the necessary nuggets of information but encourage the participants to add to the content by asking them to share their ideas.  The same idea goes with your presentation materials…having a dense presentation slide does not mean it would lead to learning.  Instead, have bullets and highlights with relevant images and illustrations, then encourage participants to discuss, share, and ask questions.  Typically, to have an interactive facilitated live session you want to design the session to have participants engage with each other and/or the content every 4-6 minutes.

Tip 3:  Make connections.  A good facilitator knows how to link ideas, build on ideas, and question for deeper understanding and clarification purposes.  You can encourage participants to share their thoughts either directly or indirectly.  Directly means asking questions and having them use audio or the chat box to answer.  It may also mean working in small groups and then presenting their findings to the general group.  Indirectly, you may use polls or whiteboard for participants to share their thoughts anonymously.

Tip 4:  Use the available tools.  Every online platform offers tools for engagement.  Get to know these tools and plan to use them often.  For instance, use break out groups to have small group activities, use polls often to conduct a pulse check, leverage the chat option for participants to share ideas or ask questions, use the whiteboard to create games such as bingo and so forth. 

Tip 5: Have a Lifeline.  When facilitating online you need to focus on your presentation and connecting with your participants.  It is always best practice to have someone in the background supporting participants should technical issues arise.  Always have a contingency plan which you have discussed with your Lifeline.  Your Lifeline can also help with sharing polls or setting up the break out groups, if these can not be created and saved beforehand.

In summary, in order to facilitate effectively online (or in-person), the most important thing is to create an environment where you invite and encourage your participants to share ideas and thoughts.  How you go about achieving this is dependent on the tools that are available to you and your willingness to share the space with your participants.  Remember learning occurs when participants are allowed to draw their own meaning and apply the information that is being shared.

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