How to facilitate inclusive, effective discussions online

What you’ll find in this note

  • 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 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

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

  1. Inclusive spaces result in more effective people → stronger teams
  2. Inclusive spaces result in more effective communication → stronger products
  • A video call
  • A group chat
  • A written post in a forum or social platform
  • An open collaborative document
  • 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?

Setting up structure and expectations

  • 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?
  • 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.
  • 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)

How to kick off conversations that matter

  • 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

1. Avoid acronyms

  • 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

  • “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

  • 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.
  • 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
  • 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

  • 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?

How to know you’re doing it 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.

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Janel Torkington

Janel Torkington

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