How to facilitate inclusive, effective discussions online

As a Content Designer at Facebook, I aim for every word in the products I work on to align with three simple principles: they should be simple, straightforward, and human. Unfortunately, the digital communication necessary to actually build these products often ends up being the polar opposite of these three golden tenets: it can be difficult, complex, and isolating.

My line of work means I facilitate a lot of digital spaces, including team video calls, group chats, and collaborative written materials. Building ever more cutting-edge communication technology gets us halfway there, but on its own isn’t enough for our new virtual gathering spaces. How do we leverage the unique opportunities and constraints of the “metaverse” to meaningfully connect with each other?

What you’ll find in this note

This is meant as both a thoughtful and a practical guide to creating and holding digital spaces that foster inclusive, effective communication. It’s long, containing at least 40 tools and tactics you can implement right away, 16 questions to ask yourself before beginning, and 3 concrete ways to reflect on your progress as a facilitator of a digital space.

This piece is divided into the following sections:

  • What’s a digital space, and why should you care about holding it?
  • Setting up structure and expectations: What kind of space are you creating and why? Where’s the door? When can people go in? What can they expect inside?
  • How to kick off conversations that matter: How do you invite people into this space? How do you open the door to people?
  • Active, empathetic facilitation: Once everyone’s inside, how do you make the space welcoming?
  • Intersectional inclusivity: Considering diversity and privilege: Is the space appropriate for and accessible to all?
  • How to know you’re doing it right

You’re going to get a lot out of this if:

  • You’re holding a team brainstorm
  • You’re driving alignment on a project
  • You want to influence your team to do something
  • You’re calling a meeting with more than a handful of participants
  • You’re writing a post inviting discussion that you really want to land well with people
  • You want to be a better facilitator — and participant — in digital spaces

My hope is that you can immediately implement many of these strategies and tools into your next group discussion.

Feel free to skip around to focus on areas where you find you struggle the most. Save this note and refer back to it when you need it. This isn’t the be-all-end-all of facilitation. I hope it’s a great place to start, but I’d also encourage everyone to dive deeper.

What’s a digital space, and why should you care about “holding” it?

As a facilitator, you should care about what kind of digital space you’re creating and holding because:

  1. Inclusive spaces result in more effective people → stronger teams
  2. Inclusive spaces result in more effective communication → stronger products

I use the term “digital spaces” intentionally. When holding group discussions in person, it can feel almost second nature as a facilitator to take the space itself into consideration. These days, many businesses are no longer gathering in physical spaces, yet the exact same considerations apply to the digital spaces we spend so much time in each day.

A digital space can be:

  • A video call
  • A group chat
  • A written post in a forum or social platform
  • An open collaborative document

I’d like to argue that it’s even more critical to create inclusive digital spaces in the context of right now. COVID-19 restrictions have made it extra challenging for many of us to feel connected to anyone outside of our own four physical walls. Even when offices begin to reopen, these digital spaces will persist; the pandemic has kicked off a permanent shift towards collaborating with remote workers.

For many of us, the digital spaces where we work are quite literally the only time we “get out” of our living rooms. When these spaces aren’t inclusive, we suffer — and so does the effectiveness of our communication.

As facilitators of digital spaces, we must constantly ask ourselves:

  • What kind of space am I creating and why?
  • How do I invite people into this space?
  • How can I hold this space for everyone present?
  • Is the space appropriate, accessible, welcoming to all?

(In case you’re not familiar with the term “holding space,” I really like this definition: Holding space is a conscious act of being present, open, allowing, and protective of what another needs in each moment. Source)

Setting up structure and expectations

Before you convene a meeting/write a post/etc., consider what specific (potentially measurable!) outcome you want, and then what structure is required to result in that outcome. This is similar to how many teams approach roadmapping: you have to know what metrics you’re trying to move before determining the projects that will get you there.

  • Is the aim to land on a decision by the end of an allotted time? Or is it more important for the time together to be spent getting team buy-in and involvement, with decisions being made through follow-up actions?
  • Do you want people to arrive to the space ready with informed opinions? Or is it better to work together towards a collective understanding?

Facilitation usually involves choosing which tools to use to reach your desired outcome. Do these tools allow and encourage different kinds of thinking and participation? Are they conducive towards your end goal?

Live group calls can be good for on-the-fly conversation and taking the pulse of the room, but they’re notoriously bad for more methodical consideration. They’re also potentially challenging for introverts, neurodiverse folks, or the sensorily impaired.

One of my favorite communication frameworks is Fast vs Slow Thinking; effective communication usually requires both. Integrate “slow thinking” into your digital space by:

  • Publishing an agenda beforehand so people have time to consider what they want to bring to the space
  • Opening up your notes prior to the meeting for people to read and comment on at their leisure (both before and after the time spent together)
  • Allowing optional contribution before the live meeting. One way to do this is by asking questions through Google Forms, then using that to seed or even jumpstart discussion.
  • Redirecting discussion into written form on a follow-up post instead of confining it to a short live time slot. This allows more people to participate, and even opens up the potential for effective “side conversations” without derailing the entire group.
  • Tools like Mural and Jamboard are good digital replacements for post-its on a whiteboard. Unfortunately, they also suffer from the exact same drawbacks as an in-person whiteboard: It can be intimidating/distracting to find yourself in a concentrated whirlwind of ideas, and you may not feel confident sticking your idea up on the wall for everyone to see. Combine them with some of the “slow thinking” techniques above to mitigate this — or enable Mural’s “Private Mode” to help folks focus on what they want to say before having to share it.

If you’re using special tools, consider assigning people beforehand to take charge of them. Rotate who the designated tool-minders are since they won’t be as available to participate in conversation. Facilitation is a full time job; you don’t want to take your attention away from the discussion because you’re trying to find the tab for the Jamboard.

However, just determining structure is not enough. The people within a digital space ultimately determine what form it will take, so setting expectations is critical.

Both before and upon entering the space, make clear to all participants:

  • Your intended outcome
  • The agenda
  • Any rules/expectations of the space (mute if not talking, how to indicate that you’d like to speak, accessibility options, etc)

This is as important for live spaces (calls, chats) as it is for more static written ones (collaborative documents, posts). Let people know upfront your intentions, the context of your message, and what expectations you have of them. They’ll feel secure and oriented, and you’re more likely to achieve your desired outcome.

Finally, vary your structures. Simply inviting everyone in the team to a call is not automatically inclusive (in fact, the more people you invite, the greater the challenge). Big group discussions and one-way presentations are important tools in the kit, but both will drain people over time. Switch it up midway through by breaking out into small groups, dedicating time to quiet individual thinking, or even redirecting the discussion to written communication as a follow-up. Postponing actual decision-making to follow-up conversations can also be an effective technique, perhaps with smaller groups that take input from the larger discussion into account.

How to kick off conversations that matter

Setting context matters. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got about working anywhere: “It is almost impossible to overcommunicate.

If you assume people already know what you’re talking about, people may not feel comfortable enough to tell you that, in fact, they’re totally lost. And if you plow blindly ahead into the weeds without establishing common context, those who are lost will feel like their presence in the digital space is not valuable — or, worse, that you don’t value them being there.

Take the time to invite people in by giving them the background they need upfront. At the very least, ask if explaining a concept would be useful to anyone present — but be aware that in a big group, folks may not feel comfortable enough to actively raise their hand and admit ignorance.

You honestly can’t overexplain things. Even if people already understand the context, reinforcing it will serve to reaffirm that you’re on the same page — so set aside any concerns you have about leaning too far in this direction.

Consider who’s in the room. When you’re framing your message, consider what you’ll need to land it with people with varied backgrounds, roles, accessibility needs, and levels of familiarity with your project. Is what you’re bringing to the table important/comprehensible for most people present? If not, can you find a way to put it in context and/or reframe it in human language?

This is as important for facilitators to remember as it is for participants. As a facilitator, if you suspect not everyone’s onboard with the trajectory of a discussion, you can gently remind folks to “let people in” by:

  • Gently requesting that they reframe their message in other words
  • Paraphrasing a message back and confirming that’s what was intended (“Let me make sure I understand this…”)
  • Noticing if discussion is devolving into a “side conversation” between just a few participants and invite them to take it offline

The words you use matter. There are two main call-outs I want to make here:

1. Avoid acronyms

When you’re absolutely certain that everyone in the digital space will immediately know what an acronym means, it can be a useful linguistic shortcut. Otherwise, don’t use acronyms, and when you hear others use them, ask what they mean even when you already know. This is especially important to do when you’re in a position of power, like when you’re facilitating, or if you’ve been in your position for a while and have nothing to prove.

  • Even if people have heard of a particular acronym before, it often requires more mental effort to remember what it means than it would if you had just used the original term in the first place. If your goal is to effectively land your message, why are you placing extra mental load on the people listening to you?
  • Acronyms create in-groups (those who know what the alphabet soup stands for) and out-groups (those who don’t). This is inherently NOT inclusive.

2. Consider non-native speakers

In international workplaces, if you’re not taking varied native languages into account when you communicate, you’re not being inclusive (nor, likely, very effective). These tips also hold true for the sensory impaired and neurodiverse.

  • “Simple language is inclusive language.” (source) Short, direct sentences will land your message better than poetic, complex ones.
  • If it’s your style, go ahead and use colorful idiomatic expressions — then immediately explain what they mean.
  • If you’re a fast talker, slow the heck down. Really. If you’ve ever taken language classes, thought you were doing pretty good conjugating verbs on your quizzes, then tried to have a conversation with a Real Native Speaker only to have words fly fast and furious at your face like a bullet train… then you can empathize with the feeling that plenty of your non-native co-workers deal with every single day. Fast talker, the onus is on you to take it down a notch.

Active, empathetic facilitation

When you’re facilitating a digital space, expect to spend most of your energy on structure (creating) and empathy (holding).

Read the room… er, digital space. It’s harder digitally; it’ll require more of you. Social cues we process “automatically” in a physical room are much more subtle or entirely absent. In addition to the intended outcome of your discussion, your goal as a facilitator is to make those present feel like their presence is valued, first by you and then by the group at large. It’s worth saying again: this is a full-time job.

Help others make space for people. Use the structures you’ve put in place to encourage this; it’s even more important to stick to what you’ve planned in digital spaces so that participants feel secure. You can do this by:

  • Orienting the flow of conversation towards the intended outcome. Help the group make the most of the space together by reminding people why you’re there together.
  • Letting interrupters (gently) know that they are interrupting. Assume good intent — it can be harder to perceive that you’re speaking over someone when you can’t see them/when there’s lag/etc. — but be firm about making space for a variety of voices. Lean on the structures you’ve set up within a space to do this, and use direct feedback outside of it.
  • Discouraging “piling on,” wherein people repeat what others have said in different words to indicate their agreement. This is often done with the best of intentions, but it takes away space that could be occupied by a different voice and/or perspective. It’s also very common for this to happen along lines of privilege (especially to women; here’s just one of many potential sources), wherein someone’s voice isn’t “validated” until their idea is repeated by someone else. Instead, promote referencing a previously proposed idea along with naming the source, then actively building on it to push the conversation forward.
  • Encouraging people to really listen to the person who’s speaking instead of rehearsing what they’re going to say next. Even if it seems extremely self-evident, it’s worth explicitly planting this seed at the beginning of a discussion to set the tone. Digital spaces actually facilitate this beautifully by allowing participants to have a virtual notepad open next to the video call to jot down notes of what they want to say so it isn’t lost, then turn their attention back to the speaker.

You likely come to the table with other things to potentially offer — your opinions, expertise on the topic, brilliant ideas. Find a way to express your perspective that doesn’t interfere with your main job: facilitation. Too often discussions get derailed or turn aimless because the facilitator wants to beat their own drum more than they want to hold space for others. Be intentional about how you add your own thoughts to the mix; you can try:

  • Offering your thoughts beforehand/as a follow-up in a post/chat/document
  • Kicking off discussion with a short presentation (however, beware of tiring out your audience with extended one-way communication)
  • Seeding your perspective with someone like-minded to bring up in the group

Finally, actively build people up. It can be easy to feel “unseen” in digital spaces (because we literally are!); fight this through proactively offering visibility. A few techniques for this are:

  • Giving credit where it’s due. Call people out by name when you want to leverage their work, and potentially give them the chance to speak if appropriate. That said, don’t unexpectedly thrust someone into the limelight unless you’ve let them know in advance, or at the very least offer them the opportunity to opt out (i.e. “I remember seeing conclusion ABC in X’s research. X, do you want to speak about this?”)
  • Noticing subtle signs that someone may be trying to speak, and opening the floor for them. (i.e. “It looks like X was trying to speak, do you still want to?”) Signs in a digital space may include shifting body language, unmuting, raising a hand and then lowering it, opening and closing their mouth, or even repeatedly showing up as “X is typing…” in a chat.
  • Using (and amplifying) body language. Because signals are often diminished in digital spaces, exaggerating your physical reactions can really help encourage a speaker and make them feel heard. Set the tone at the start of a discussion by encouraging participants to do the same. You may feel goofy nodding emphatically or giving a thumbs-up (and you should find what works for you), but literally everyone appreciates seeing a tangible reaction to their words. Boost this further as a facilitator by directly mentioning how the room reacted (positively) after someone has finished speaking, as it’s not always easy to notice reactions at the same time that you’re making a point.

Intersectional inclusivity: Considering diversity and privilege

No matter whether the space is physical or digital, it’s the people within it that give it form — and those people all come from their own individual background. As a facilitator, it’s your job to pay attention to — and call attention to — privilege, especially when considering who’s taking up space.

Purely from personal experience, digital spaces — especially live video calls — are MORE prone than physical ones to be dominated by just a few louder voices (if anyone knows of any actual research done on this, I’d love to see it!). My working theory is that it’s more difficult for people to “read the room” to gauge and temper how much space they’re occupying when we’re all reduced to rectangles on a screen. This makes it all the more critical for you as a facilitator to be aware of what dynamics may be at play amplifying some voices and silencing others.

Some of these factors may be more obvious than others: louder, faster voices may be due to participants’ natural tendencies towards extroversion or introversion. One strategy to address this common imbalance is by employing a handful of the “fast and slow” thinking techniques listed earlier, which allow various venues for participants to potentially express themselves (e.g. vocally in a big group, in smaller group discussions, or in written form). Another is to pause midway through the conversation and specifically ask people who haven’t spoken up yet if there’s anything they’d like to share (without calling them out by name! e.g. “Would anyone who hasn’t spoken yet like to offer their perspective?”).

Other factors may be less self-evident, or even invisible. Consider how gender, race, role/seniority, native language, and access needs may affect group dynamics. Exploring how each of these affects group communication could be its own series of articles. To get started, ask yourself:

  • What are your participants bringing to the table, and how does it affect their voice in the room?
  • How can you work to combat inequality in your digital space? What structures can you put in place? How can you invite a diversity of voices?
  • How can you bring attention to an imbalance in the diversity of participants so that everyone’s “called in” to have important conversations about inclusion?
  • What are your own unconscious biases, and how are you working to actively dismantle them?

A few special mentions specific to digital spaces:

Don’t force people to have their camera on, and don’t call people out for having it off. There are many, many good reasons why someone might choose to turn off their camera in a call, including caretaking needs, living circumstances, mental health, and introversion. Let people make this decision for themselves, and consider explicitly having a “cameras optional” policy.

Ask proactively about accessibility needs, especially for meetings with people you don’t know well. Zoom has the ability to include closed captions (CC); enable this whenever possible.

Ask participants to share their pronouns in their titles and statuses. Simply modeling this yourself will encourage others to follow your example (here’s how to do this on Zoom).

How to know you’re doing it right

Inclusion isn’t a checklist. Even if you implement every piece of practical advice in this note, you’ll likely still come across sticky facilitation situations that require you to improvise on the fly. So how do you know if it’s even working?

The tough answer is that inclusion is a long-term journey. It’s an ambitious vision that you’ll always be striving to realize, but never complete. The good news is, the progress you make matters, and it’s worth recognizing.

From Sarah Cordivano’s excellent article on inclusive communication, here are three ways you can “do inclusion right”:

  1. Learn. Actively and continuously challenge yourself to widen your own views.
  2. Recognize progress. Recognize and celebrate incremental progress you have made as you work towards improvements with your team and communication strategy.
  3. Start a conversation. Ask for feedback […] on how inclusive your communication actually is. Listen, believe their experiences and take the feedback to heart to make improvements.

“Doing it right” doesn’t mean never messing it up; it means owning up to your mistakes when you inevitably make them and graciously accepting feedback. Listen, learn, and do better next time.

And with that, I’d like to open up a conversation about how you manage inclusion in digital spaces. After all, we’re all learning here, especially me.

Have you tried any of the techniques in this note? What really resonated for you; what didn’t work at all? Where are my blind spots; what else should effective, inclusive facilitators take into consideration?


Extra reading:

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Janel Torkington

Content designer. Sassy futurist. Ukulele plucker. Ottolenghi acolyte.