Building Community Online – Episode 23

In this episode, Beth Cougler Blom talks about how to build online communities when facilitating in the virtual mode. She discusses the importance of understanding our own values and beliefs as facilitators, knowing our participants, and the need to define the purpose and goals of our sessions. She shares ideas for welcoming participants and setting the stage for online community building as well as strategies, such as facilitating group agreements, that support group engagement.

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Podcast production services by Mary Chan of Organized Sound Productions.

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Show Transcript

[Upbeat music playing]

[Show intro]
Welcome, to Facilitating on Purpose, where we explore ideas together about designing and facilitating learning. Join me to get inspired on your journey to becoming and being a great facilitator wherever you work. I’m your host, Beth Cougler Blom.

Beth Cougler Blom
Hello, how are you doing today? This is Episode 23, and if you are joining this podcast for the first time, I welcome you. And if you have listened to previous episodes, welcome back. Nice to have you here. This episode is going to be all about building community online.

I was at a networking event recently – oh, it was so thrilling to be in person with people – and we did an ‘open space’ activity. I wasn’t facilitating this time. I was a participant in the activity. And one other participant’s question was around how he builds community online. I thought, ‘oh, that’s so fantastic that people are actually still asking that question,’ because sometimes I can fall into the thinking that everybody already knows how to do this. Even though in my business I do help people with this kind of stuff all the time, but it is a good reminder to know that we’re all at different points in our journey of learning how to do certain things around designing and facilitating learning.

So getting the question to our group around how we build community online was just another way for me to realize, ‘yes, I still have to keep talking about this and I still want to keep talking about this’. Truthfully, it’s one of my favourite topics because I do think it’s something that we can keep doing better and better, over the course of our journey as facilitators of learning or facilitators of group process. There’s always something that we can do better around building community online, especially as we dive and delve more into inclusive facilitation. If you’ve listened to other episodes of the podcast, I feel like we end up touching on inclusive facilitation topics quite a bit, and rightly so, because we are in a world that is actively working and seeking to be more inclusive. There are so many things to learn about that, and that’s an exciting thing, actually, as well.
In this episode, I will be talking solely about building community in virtual communities. So that is workshops, or meetings, or sessions that you’re doing in synchronous, online platforms such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams or Butter or other platforms like that.

There are other modes, of course, where we can build community online, asynchronous online, you know, those multi-week – often at the post-secondary level – kind of courses where learners are going through as a cohort together, and they’re talking with each other, and they’re talking with a facilitator, and actively working together. That is another way we can build community online. We won’t talk about that in this episode. Maybe I’ll do a future episode on that and just kind of set that aside for now.

A lot of the things that I will talk about in this episode, will be also applicable to that, but it just makes it a little bit easier for me and for us to think about just one mode [chuckles] as we go through this topic. This episode will be about how we build community in virtual spaces.
The first thing I’d like to share with you is something that I try to continue to go back to and think about myself, and if you read my book, Design to Engage, this is one of the first things that I started talking about in the book, is what are our own values and beliefs as a facilitator of learning.
If we get clear on what we believe effective learning looks like, then we are able to then, more easily, design and facilitate something that we think is effective and matches up with our values and beliefs. If we believe something particular about what it looks like to build community, in this case, let’s get really clear on what that is for ourselves first before we go to design the experience for our groups.

Think about when you have been a participant in somebody else’s session, yourself. What kinds of things have you appreciated that they’ve done around how they’ve been building community for the group that you’ve been in? And do you want to replicate that kind of thing, or those kind of things, in your own sessions. So get clear on your own values and beliefs as a facilitator about what effective facilitation, what effective learning experiences look like and in particular, here, what it looks like to build community, that would be effective for you, and maybe the people that you know, and then use that as a jumping off point. That’s not going to give you everything that you need, of course, but it’s a good place to start because if you’re not clear about your own self, and what you want and need out of a session, then it really is hard to maybe then think about the participants and other people who are coming into the session as well. So start there and then broaden out with your future work that we’re going to talk about next.

Once you’ve gotten clear on your own values and beliefs as a facilitator about what effective learning looks like, next I want you to think about the specific event that you’re trying to create and get clear on the purpose of why you want to hold the event or the learning experience, and what the goals are that you’re hoping to achieve. What are the results that you hope to achieve by having the learning experience? This is just great instructional design, because there are different purposes that we can name for different types of events.

For example, if your whole purpose is to build community and to have people network with each other, and create a collaborative experience, if you write that down as your clear purpose and your goals, then you can kind of hold your feet to the fire of designing that type of session, and it will all align. The clearer you can be about what your purpose is, what your goals are, the results you’re hoping to achieve with the session, and write that down, then you are going to be able to design the type of event that you want that is going to lead people there.

Next, I want you to think about who you’re designing for – so your learners or your participants, whatever you call the group that’s going to be in the room. What do you know about them? How can you find out about them? I believe I’ve talked about learner analysis things before, probably in the ‘Choosing Activities’ episode that I did recently on the podcast. Go back and listen to that one because there’s a lot in there about activity choice, and how we do that, and that really directly relates, as well, to building community too. It helps us think about the people at the heart of our process are always our learners, they’re always our participants. The more we get to know them, and what they need, and what’s going to inspire them, and invite them into the session, to be able to participate, that’s going to help us build community with them and amongst them as a group, as well.

We don’t want those participants to just meet us – do we – as the facilitator. We want them to meet each other, as well, because of course they have knowledge, they have experience and skills that they can share with each other, and that is just the whole piece around creating a participatory learning experience. Who is going to be in your room, so to speak, in the virtual space, and what can you do particularly with that group, to try to build trust with them, help them feel as safe as possible in the session, so that community will be built.
Depending on how long you have with them, it can be a [smiling] small amount of community that’s built in maybe just an hour, or if you have multiple sessions with them, or long sessions, then of course your community will strengthen over time as you continue to interact with them and inspire interaction between the group as well.

Another thing I like to think about is the group size as it relates to the possibility of building community. In my own work, I don’t work with hundreds of people in a virtual space. I actually prefer about 25 is my sweet spot of the group that I would like to have. I know other people have lots more people in their rooms. I can do that, I have done a bit more than that, but I really almost never facilitate with more than about 35 people, probably. That’s by choice, because I know that the larger the group gets, the harder it’s going to be for everyone in the group to try to build community with each other and have a chance to participate.

I guess this makes me think to say, too, think about the nature of the community building that you want to achieve. Is it a whole-group community building, or are you looking to have small teams build community with each other? Because if it’s just at the team level, maybe you can ‘get away with’ a little bit larger of group because you’re going to bring them down into the small group or team level very often throughout your session. But most of the time we’re kind of circling between small group work and large group discussions and so on. So the larger the group, the harder it’s going to be to engage everyone when we’re in the main room, so to speak. I try to keep my group size fairly small so that when we’re in the main session, we can still have that semblance of being a community that we can all even see in the window. I use Zoom a lot, so I’m thinking about the gallery window. You can only see, I think, 25 people in there. More than that, you’re going to start paging through the different gallery window views and it just gets a little bit harder, doesn’t it, to think about who’s in there and, and who’s engaging with each other. So keep your group size manageable for the type of community and the amount of community building you want to have happen in your session.

Another thing that you can think about is the platform. Sometimes I know you don’t really have a choice in this because your organization or your budget, or whatever it is, has dictated to you what the platform should be that you’re going to be in in your virtual sessions. If you do have a choice, choose a platform where people actually can engage with each other in it. I’m not going to [chuckles] name names here, but there are definitely different platforms that I do not like to be in and actually go as far as to refuse to be in – at least one that I’ve got on the top of my mind – because it’s a unidirectional experience between the … I’m going to actually say ‘presenter’, in this case, to the group. You can’t even see the people that are in the group when you’re presenting. I’m not a presenter, I’m a facilitator, so I want a platform that’s going to help me see the group, be able to interact with the group in multiple ways. Some platforms that we have in the market right now – depending on kind of which level you buy into it, or what the platform’s nature is – you will not be able to see that group. I really want to encourage you to choose the platform for your virtual space that allows you to build community.

I actually was asked to teach a short workshop online about building community, and the client said to me that I would be in this particular platform that was a unidirectional one like that. And I had to say no. [Laughs] Especially when I’m teaching and facilitating learning about building community, I cannot be in a platform where that actually isn’t enabled by the technology. So consider the platform. What’s going to invite them in, allow everyone to see each other and what kind of thing is sort of doable for your group as well? You’ll know the technical capabilities of your group, and so [watch out if] the platform choice doesn’t match up with what your group can actually do and feel comfortable in. Sometimes platforms can feel very different from each other, and the technology evokes these feelings in us that can maybe work for or against community. Look around at the different platforms and see what might work for you.

Another thing I think about around building community online is that we need to start this process so much farther in advance than I think a lot of people think. I talk about marketing materials, the advertisements that we write for the course, you know, we call it the ‘blurb’ sometimes. What does your course blurb say about what you’re going to be doing in your workshop in your virtual space? Does it say that it’s a community building experience? Does it say that it’s, for example, interactive or participatory? Are you using those kinds of words in the way you describe the workshop? Are you sending that to participants ahead of time? Are they agreeing…in a sense, when they go to register for something, they are agreeing to be part of that thing in the way that you’ve described it. So look at how you’re describing your sessions, because sometimes I’ve seen clients give me their blurbs, I look at it and I think: ‘well actually what you’re saying you’re doing is a presentation, and that’s usually a one-way experience from presenter to audience’. We even use different words, don’t we, to describe that kind of experience. If I read a blurb about a session and I think, well, that’s a presentation, I’m not automatically going to think, as a potential person who’s going to sign up for that session, that it’s going to be a session where we’re going to build community together. But if you use words that are around group collaboration and participation – and there’s all sorts of ways to say that – let your marketing and your registration materials really mirror the type of experience you do intend to create in your session. So consider the way you’re communicating with the potential registrants and the participants that will be coming to your session through those types of materials.

The other way we communicate with participants ahead of time – and I hope you do this, maybe you’ll start after you’ve listened to this episode, if you aren’t already – is sending a pre-session communication email to the participants. I like to send this out at least a few days ahead of time, and I really try to tell participants a little bit about who I am, what the session’s about, and I also invite them to let me know if there’s anything that I can do in the session or before the session that’s going to support them. That’s a generic statement that I’ve created around drawing out anything I might need to know around inclusivity, accessibility, for supporting the particular participants that are going to come to that particular session.
So I’m not only saying, ‘hey, this is the type of session that you’re going to come to, and you’ve agreed to come to – expect it to be participatory!’ but I’m also inviting them to tell me how I can do different things, perhaps, than I even thought of to be able to support them more fully in the session.

I think that the more people feel like they’re being welcomed into the experience, that I am doing things to try to support all learners, and I have planned an active, participatory, collaborative experience – those kinds of signposts in my communication, I think it helps them realize that ‘yes, we are going to build community. We know how to build community. Community is going to happen in the session’. There are lots of pieces that we do ahead of the session to talk with participants, either individually or as a group, to alert them to the type of session that we want to have, which includes building community together.

Let’s talk a little bit now about designing the actual session. There’s all sorts of things I could go into about using an actual lesson plan template, and not designing your session in PowerPoint or that kind of thing – if you’re really interested in going in that direction I have written lots about that in my book, and I won’t go into it again here. Just suffice to say that if you are still designing in a PowerPoint, the more you can switch and crossover to using lesson plan templates, the easier it’s going to be for you to design an experience where you can build community with people because a lesson plan template actually helps you design a more interactive experience. I won’t go into that too much, but just do yourself the favour of designing in a tool that’s going to allow you and enable you to design a more interactive experience, and usually PowerPoint is not the way. [Laughs] Sorry, PowerPoint!

One of the first things I always put into my lesson plans for virtual sessions – and all sessions, actually – is to do group agreements. Again, this is an activity that we do that’s kind of a signpost to participants about the type of session that they are in, when they come to the virtual session. Facilitating group agreements – some people call them ‘norms’ or ‘community rules’ or other words such as that – I like to say ‘group agreements’ – when we facilitate group agreements, it helps us have a conversation with the group about how we’re going to be together. Community building pieces can come into that because we can have agreements that support the building of community, such as ‘sharing the air’. You know, that’s a way to say, think about how much you’re participating versus how much other people are participating. Sometimes we say that as ‘step forward, step back’. Step back if you’re one that has been participating a lot and allow other people to have a chance. And ‘step forward’ if you realize everybody else has been doing a lot of participating and your voice hasn’t been heard yet. So there are many ways we can put the language of encouraging participation into our group agreements, and those are just a couple of ways.

Group agreements can also include things like confidentiality, taking care of yourself, self-care things, things around technology. There are all sorts of little bits that we can enter into group agreements that help us just have a great experience together as a group. So if you’re not facilitating a section of group agreements in your sessions, you might want to start adding that in. You can do that even very quickly in just five or 10 minutes to give a marker for everyone about how you hope the session is going to roll.

Actually, I have a funny one that just is something that I use that just says, ‘roll with imperfection; weird things will probably happen’, and it’s one way for me to just kind of be funny and go, ‘yeah, we’re here in the virtual space and we’re trying to do our best job possible, but sometimes crazy stuff happens in virtual spaces, and let’s just roll with it when it happens’. It’s one way that I can also just be a human being and be fallible [laughs] in front of the group, as well. Which is another way I think we can build community online because they realize, ‘yeah, I’m a real person over here behind my computer’, and the more real we are with each other, it actually helps us connect and build relationships with each other and build community as well.

Of course, the big thing about designing a virtual session towards interactivity and participation to be able to develop community with people, is just to lesson plan the heck out of that thing, and have your outcomes and include activities that align with the outcomes, give people options about how to participate, have lots of things for them to do, and choice in how they’re going to do it. Move them back and forth between pairs work and individual work and group work. If we allow people to choose more about how they want to participate in sessions, I think that’s going to help us build community because people can then realize, ‘oh, I belong here. The way I want to be in this session today is accepted, and I can make choices about how I want to participate’.

We have talked on the podcast before about universal design for learning, and other design and facilitation strategies, so design your session using strategies that help all people participate, in hopefully the ways that they can and want to participate. The more we learn how to do that – and it is very difficult work, it takes time, and it’s going to be a lifelong journey for us to figure out how to do that – but the more we can do that, though, people are going to want to be part of our communities and to engage in communities, because they feel seen and they feel accepted for the ways they want to learn and the ways they want to be with people. I can’t say that [chuckles] I’m an expert at that. I probably never will be because of the complexity involved and how it changes over time, but that’s OK. I just keep doing the best I can, and you probably are as well. The more you learn about inclusive facilitation, and how to welcome all people into your sessions, the easier it’s going to be to create a community with people and be part of that community yourself as the facilitator.

So plan to invite people often into the conversation. You’re a facilitator. [Smiling] You are not a presenter. I’m not saying that presentations can’t happen, it’s just that in this podcast, and in the work that I do, and a lot of my friends and colleagues who are in the field, we aren’t presenters, we’re facilitators. We’re designers and facilitators of learning. That comes with so much more intentionality and participation and interactivity and active learning and all those great things. It is different. So if you’re still in the presentation mode, please reach out to those of us that can help you figure out how to become less of a presenter and more of a facilitator in the learning experiences that you are trying to create.
There are so many things that you can do to keep educating yourself in how to be a great facilitator and draw people into be part of your community online in your virtual sessions. I looked at some of the past podcast episodes that we’ve done, and if you haven’t listened to these particular ones already, I suggest you go and take a listen. I think you’ll find them very valuable. Episode 3 was ‘Inclusive Facilitation’ with Susana Guardado. Episode 10 was called ‘Facilitating Connection’ with Jan Keck. Episode 14 was called ‘Connection Before Content’ with Chad Littlefield. And more recently, Episode 21 was about ‘Pronouncing Participants’ Names with Mary Houle and Sarra Ismail. And that doesn’t have connection in the title, but pronouncing participants’ names correctly and learning how to do that is a great way to start building connection and community with people. It’s seems so simple but, as you’ll hear in that episode, it’s very, very big. Pronouncing someone’s name correctly absolutely will draw them in to be part of your community.

Now, you’ve got your lesson plan. It’s full of interactive things to do with your group, and having group members talk to each other, and going into breakout rooms, or working in pairs or whatever they’re going to be doing. You’ve designed something that’s interactive and inclusive.
Now I want you to go back and look at the start of the session and think about how you’re starting off. We talked about group agreements, but I want you to back up a little bit before that. When people are coming into the virtual space, what are you doing with them? A lot of people that I work with are still kind of keeping the doors closed of the virtual space until the top of the hour or whenever the session is supposed to officially start. And they start with this very formal, one-way introduction that people have done time and time again.

I want to encourage you, if you are still doing something like that, to build connection and community into the start of the session. And I call it, actually, ‘the start before the start’. As soon as people are arriving into the virtual space, I don’t want you to let them hang out too long in the waiting room before you let them in before the session’s starting, you’re going to have purposefully designed in an optional activity for them to do that’s just fun, gets people talking. You’re going to welcome people individually as they come into the room and you’re going to learn how to say their names and you’re going to have some fun together. You’re going to do all that with different people as they start to join the group, one by one, before the session starts.

An informal start, a casual start, ‘start before the start’ – whatever you want to call it – if you’re not doing it yet, this would be a great time to start. This allows us to start getting to know the group, figure out who these folks are as individuals, and it allows them to get to know us as well. As I said before, real human beings on the other end of the computer.

The ‘start before the start’ is a great thing to incorporate into your sessions so that you can build community with them right from the very time they enter into the online space with you. You can do that on an individual basis a little bit as well as people start to enter in.
On the flip side, you could do it at the end of a session and say, ‘hey stick around for a while and let’s have a little bit of chat and social time before you go off to the next thing’. I’ve found that most people do still try to get out of the session [laughs] as fast as possible, because we’ve booked ourselves too tight for the next meeting or that kind of thing. So I haven’t really done a lot of that myself. I do always integrate ‘the start before the start’, but the ending hasn’t been as successful for me. But for you, try either one and see what you could do, because those moments – I mean, I want you to be a real human being in the middle of the session as well – but those moments as you start and end a session, just like you would in person, they allow you to be casual. They allow you to be welcoming, and act like real authentic human beings in the room. And they can be really fun, too, and that helps us set the tone for the type of session that we want to have.

So be a real person [smiling]. You know, those participants, they feed off of us and what we are doing. I don’t know if there’s research to say that mirror neurons are a thing in online spaces, but I think they must be, because the more we can bring our A-game and act like we’re having fun and act like we want to be there – because hopefully we do – then our participants are going to feed off that and they’re going to want to be there with us as well.

Now, not all of you are going to be vivacious, really gregarious facilitators and you know, maybe I have a little bit of that in me, but I’m not so far down the scale, like that, myself as well. But one thing you could do if you’re not really a super conversationalist or you’re a little bit worried about bringing your vivacious self to that ‘start before the start’ section, or even the entire workshop itself, think about co-facilitating with someone who has a different energy level than you. If you’re a little bit more reserved, you might appreciate and benefit from a co-facilitator who is a little bit more on the vivacious, gregarious side. Neither way is right or wrong as a facilitator, but it is nice to pair energy levels in people if you can find somebody else to collaborate with in that way, because, of course, your participants are going to connect maybe with one or the other of you. And that kind of seeing of different styles of facilitation can help draw people out as well.

Lastly, I’ll say to just pay attention to whatever happens with the group as you’re facilitating. Sometimes we can have implemented all of the best intentions in our design stage, doing all of the things that we need to do to create interactive learning environments, and then just something happens in the moment, during the session, that kind of takes it off the rails a bit, and it might go off the rails in terms of building community. So just pay attention. Be flexible. Always be looking out for how you can serve the group in your awareness levels and how you’re listening to them, and so on. And you can even ask participants. There are opinions about certain things around what’s happening with community and get their advice. Never feel like you have to be the only one that has the answer to how to build community with the group, either before the session or during the session or after the session. Absolutely, in feedback, you’re going to ask participants what worked for them, and what they thought you should have done better in terms of the entire session, but you can also ask about building community at that point as well.

OK, so that is probably a lot to go on in terms of building online community with your virtual groups. I hope that you can take away at least a few things to go and try and implement in your facilitation practice. I probably missed all sorts of big things, so I really welcome you to reach out to me if I missed something that you absolutely think I should have covered in this episode, please connect with me and you’ll get a sense of how to do that if you listen to the end of this episode.

[Episode outro]
On the next episode of the podcast I talk with Neelu Kaur. Since Neelu focuses on leadership, mindfulness and burnout management for individuals, teams and organizations, I thought she would be a great person to talk to around how we facilitators can maintain our wellness and prevent burnout. So join me next time on the podcast where we discuss that topic. I hope you’ve enjoyed listening today. Thanks for being here.

[Show outro]
Thank you for listening to Facilitating on Purpose. If you were inspired by something in this episode, please share it with a friend or a colleague to help them expand their facilitation practice too. To find the show notes, give me feedback, or submit ideas for future episodes visit Special thanks to Mary Chan at Organized Sound Productions for producing this episode. Happy facilitating!

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