What Would It Take to Get These People Engaged??

Photo of computer screen with 6 bored people in meeting

Last week I hosted the first session in a series I’m calling Facilitation Practice Play Space. At the beginning of the session, I asked participants to write in the chat box, “What is your biggest challenge in facilitating virtual meetings?”

Simultaneously, every one of them wrote “engagement.”

Granted, it was an (intentionally) small group. But the fact that engagement was on everyone’s mind is certainly instructive!

Next, each person had five minutes to go into detail about her challenge, talk about facilitation practices she was trying, or just vent. Here are some examples:

  • “Carrie” was shifting her consulting practice into community engagement. She wanted to help people feel included and make sure all voices were heard.
  • “Samantha” was focused on graphic facilitation. She wanted to speed up the process of teaching participants how to use collaborative software packages so the group could get to the real content.
  • “Miranda” was convening groups at her university to deal with weighty campus-wide issues. She was frustrated that she couldn’t get people from the engineering and computer science departments to be more active during their meetings.
  • “Charlotte” was stuck with one of those dominant voices who won’t let other people get a word in edgewise. She was also trying to institute use of a new collaborative platform.

I had potential solutions to these challenges, but so did the other participants. For example, everyone had the same advice for Charlotte about the new platform: Teach people to use it first, maybe practicing on small issues related to the big question. Introduce the big question only when participants have some comfort with the platform.

Even more beautiful was a coincidence of the sort that always arises when we set up truly collaborative work spaces. Samantha turned out to be an expert on Charlotte’s new platform. The two of them made their own play date.

Facilitation Practice Play Space sessions aren’t webinars; the words “practice” and “play” are in there for a reason. They are spaces for participants to share the challenges they encounter in facilitating virtual meetings — safely, outside the confines of their own organizations. Together, we explore the issues, find solutions, and practice what we’re going to do.

In this session, we quickly discovered that the common theme was designing for engagement. Miranda, for example, was using the same design for every meeting, whether the group was from Engineering or English. We helped her think about how to tailor the design to meet the same goals with different groups of people.

Many of the engagement solutions we discussed applied across the board — and probably will help you get people more engaged in your meetings too.

Here’s what you can do in advance to design for engagement.

  • Set and share the meeting agenda, complete with intended outcomes. People are much more likely to engage if they know what they’re there for.
  • Collect data in advance. If the group has to decide among Big, Aidan, and Steve, a survey before the meeting can save a lot of time. When you present the finding that Steve has an 85% approval rating, the three people who chose Aidan and the one outlier who liked Big will have a lot less invested in arguing for their choices.
  • In fact, do as much work as you can in advance. Screen time is precious; people’s physical and psychological stamina for online meetings is limited. Besides setting the agenda, collecting data, and even taking a preliminary vote, you might share data results or ask reflection questions before the meeting to winnow down the screen time.

During the meeting, there’s more you can do to get everyone engaged. (I say “during the meeting,” but in fact you will have planned these steps in advance. That’s why we call it “design.”)

  • Make a working agreement that everyone has to be on camera and on mic (unless the baby is crying or the dog is barking) during collaborative portions of the meeting.
  • Use the chat function, for example, as I did in this session to get a quick pulse. People with pronounced introversion tend to be more comfortable writing their responses. (However, you can’t let them hide. See the next bullet.)
  • Go “around the Zoom.” Having an “open” discussion is an invitation for dominant people to dominate. I go around the room and call on each person in turn. I set a time limit and, if time is tight, set a timer that all can hear. I let participants know they can pass if they’re not ready when I call on them, and I’ll come back to them. This  way I stay true to the principle that facilitators should not put people on  the spot.
  • Use breakout rooms. Put TWO (2) people in each room. When you pair people up in a physical conference room, the introverts who get stuck with big extraverts may never get to speak. For some reason it’s different in virtual breakout rooms. Having only Ms. Introvert to look at cues Mr. Extravert that it’s rude for him to do all the talking.

Some of these suggestions might sound a bit dictatorial to you, as they did to some people in the Facilitation Practice Play Space session. I urged them, as I urge you, to embrace the fact that facilitators have to be more directive online than in person.

Direct gently, with a smile. Everyone will be grateful for the structure when they leave the meeting having accomplished what they set out to do.

What you can do today

Evaluate the level of engagement of participants in the last meeting you facilitated. On a scale of 1 to 10, how much did people “show up” with their full attention and their best ideas?

  • If you’re not thrilled with your evaluation, look back at the engagement tips above. Which ones can you try at the next meeting?
  • If you want support in designing for engagement, sign up for our next Facilitation Practice Play Space on February 8 or for our webinar on Facilitating Virtual Collaboration on January 27 — or both!
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