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The Art of Facilitating Virtual Discussion Groups and Breakouts

March 30, 2020
May 19, 2023

One of the best community experiences I’ve ever had was a weekly lunch hosted at a small indie coworking space where I was a member.Every Wednesday, we’d sit down for lunch and have a facilitated 90-minute discussion. The format was simple: we’d go around and each share a high and low from our week for the first 45 minutes, then switch to a shared discussion on a single topic. It was a highlight of my week. It was a space I came to rely on, to reflect on my week, and it made me feel much more connected with my coworkers.One week I brought my friend and artist Ivan Cash to participate. He loved the format so much, he decided that he needed to start a discussion group for his network of creative professionals. Since these artists lived in different cities, he had to host virtual discussion groups. They decided on a monthly format and after some experimentation, decided to remove the topic-based discussion so they could focus on sharing highs and lows, and give each member a chance to ask for feedback on a challenge. The group has now been running for over a year and has become another staple in my life.Summed up, discussion groups have become one of my favorite formats for building community.They’re genuine, and intimate. Something about having a small group of people listening makes people feel like they can be more open and vulnerable. Small groups allow for “real” conversations to happen, and ensures that everyone has a chance to have their voice heard. And the networking value is huge. I’ve met so many high-quality humans, and formed lasting relationships, through discussion groups.These are things you just don’t get in a big conference or webinar, or in an online group or forum. People are more reserved in those settings. They never know who’s in the audience listening. In a small group, you know exactly who’s there.Now, small group discussions have been happening in-person since before humans first started telling stories around a fire. But now we have virtual discussion groups. They’re IN the computer. It’s a unique and more recent experience that has grown in popularity over the past few years with the growth of platforms like Google Hangouts,Zoom, or Bevy, the platform CMX uses for our events.No matter how much you optimize the experience, a virtual discussion group won’t be the same as an in-person group. BUT! You’ll find that when done correctly, they’re not all that different either and can have some unique advantagesWith that, since a lot of folks are dipping their toes into virtual discussion groups, events, and breakouts for the first time, I wanted to offer some advice for facilitating virtual discussion groups from my experience, and called on some other experts to share their words of wisdom as well.

1. Decide on goals and frequency

What is the desired outcome of your virtual discussion group? Do you want participants to have action items? Do you just want them to feel connected to each other? Get answers to their questions? By understanding the purpose of your discussion, it’ll make it easier to decide on format and structure.Is this going to be a one-off call or will this group come together regularly over time?This can greatly impact the kind of experience that your group discussion has. Both are totally cool, and both are valuable. Obviously, bringing the same group together consistently over time will help those people form strong bonds and develop a community.One-off virtual discussion groups are good for a topic-based chat.Ongoing virtual discussion groups are good for a group of people who have a shared identity and consistently share the same challenges. This also works if it’s a really curated group where you, as the organizer, choose the right people that you think will make it a valuable and ongoing group.If you’re unsure if everyone in the group is a good fit, start off with one discussion. If it goes well, you can offer to host more!

2. Curate the right group of people

Our urge, as community builders, is to always want to be inclusive of everyone. I know, I feel it every time I organize a “private” group. I don’t want it to feel exclusive. But trust me, you want to curate who you invite to a small virtual group discussion. One wrong member can derail the entire conversation.I recently hosted a small-group discussion for community professionals who are currently job hunting. When I put it on Twitter, I got dozens of requests from people who wanted to join. The temptation was to just say yes to everyone, but I knew that wouldn’t result in a valuable discussion. I wanted to make sure everyone in the call met two specific criteria:

  • Must have been working in community previously
  • Must be actively looking for jobs right now (vs. passively considering)

It wouldn’t have been as useful of a call if we mixed in people who were passively looking with those who are currently interviewing and hustling to get hired. It’s just too different of an experience.It turned out, I could have made it even more specific based on where people were looking for jobs. It turned out that participants were looking for jobs in the US, Europe, India and Africa. In each region, the job hunting experience was quite different and presented unique challenges. So when I host this group again, I’ll likely organize it by region to make it even more relevant to all participants.Who you bring to your group is critical. Is everyone there for the right reasons? Do they all have the same level of experience? Do you have a mix of people with something to teach and people who have a lot to learn?Who you bring to your group can be a powerful selling point to get others to join too. Say you want to organize a virtual discussion group of CMO’s, getting a really reputable CMO that everyone knows to commit to joining first will help you recruit more quality participants. Discussion groups are incredible spaces for networking, so make sure you have people that that want to network with each other.

3. Set your ground rules upfront

I kick off every call by sharing the ground rules. For small virtual discussions groups, I almost always implement the Vegas Rule: What’s shared in the group stays in the group. I usually let everyone know that we will not be recording the session, so they can feel comfortable being fully transparent.I also like the “step up, step back” rule, which reminds participants to step up and use their voice when they have something to stay but also to step back and make room for other voices if you feel you’ve been saying a lot. This is perhaps the most important rule for a facilitator to enforce. When a participant starts taking up all the airspace, you’re the only one in a position to step in, and ask them to step back.Another important rule for some virtual discussion groups is to “stay on topic.” Matt Armstrong, the Student Communities Manager at Western Governors University has a great trick for reeling in a participant who goes off topic.

“To help keep your session on topic ,let everyone know the ‘Parking Lot’ is in effect. If someone gets off-topic, validate their feelings by writing down their idea or point on a sticky note and posting it on the visible wall behind you (the parking lot). Kindly let them know it is out of scope for this group session but will be put in the parking lot for future discussion and/or collaboration. Doing so can lead to a more fun and enriching session for everyone.” –Matt Armstrong

Whatever the rules, make them clear up front. Not only does this communicate the rules, it also immediately lets your attendees know that you are the facilitator (definition of roles), and communicates to them that this will be a curated experience.

4. Choose your format and share before the discussion

I can’t tell you how many calls and meetings I’ve been to where the organizer had absolutely no plan in place beyond inviting a bunch of people to a call. They hoped the discussion would just happen.If you don’t have a structure in place, there’s a very good chance you will waste a lot of time in your call trying to figure out what the structure is. And the discussions end up feeling aimless.So know your format ahead of time, and communicate it at the start of the call. Better yet, communicate it before the call, so everyone knows what to expect and comes prepared.Generally, all group discussion formats will fall into one of three structures:

  1. Sequential: You go in order and everyone in the group must participate
  2. Non-sequential: You go in order and participants can pass
  3. Popcorn: There’s no order and anyone can choose to jump in at any time, or choose to not participate

There are lots of specific formats you can use to kick off your discussion or to manage the entire discussion. Here are a few ideas I’ve used with success:

  • Round of Intros: Kick off with a round of intros. Spice it up with a “fun” question like, “What cartoon character do you most identify with?”
  • Whip-around: An initial question that everyone answers to get everyone involved in the conversation early. A lot of these formats can be considered “whip-arounds.” They’re usually quick. You can find a ton of examples and a way to choose the right question in Boosting Connection and Crushing Loneliness by Rachel Ben Hamou.
  • Traffic Light: Ask everyone to share how they’re feeling at that moment: Red, yellow, or green.
  • High-and-Low: Have each person share a high and a low from their life/work. This is also called “a rose and a thorn.”
  • Presentation: Have one or multiple members share their screen and give a short presentation, then open up to discussion.
  • Share a challenge: Each person has a chance to share a challenge that they want feedback on and then gets time for other participants to give them feedback.
  • Topic-based discussion: Have a topic or theme for the call, and leave it open to participants to jump in with their thoughts and opinions.
  • Question-based discussion: Have every member answer the same question, so you get a diversity of perspectives on the same challenge from everyone.
  • Commitment and next steps: Finish the call by asking each participant to share one commitment they will make as a result of the discussion, or a next action they will take

And some creative ideas to make your call more fun and engaging:

  • Bring a beverage/snack: Have each participant bring a warm beverage, or drink of their choice, and share what they’re drinking at the start of the call. Or do what Kate Sassoon at Singularity University does and ask everyone to bring a snack! She explains: “There is bonding Neuroscience at work (and neurodiversity inclusion for those who need to play with something and/or self-soothe to pay attention)."
  • Kick off with speed networking: if you have the extra time, you can use tools like Icebreaker where attendees can meet each other in short 1-1 video chats. This is a great way to meet individuals before joining the group session, just like you would at an in-person event.

5. Offer an easy activity first to help members “arrive,” and model the behavior for the rest of the discussion

Vulnerability and transparency is the magic that makes a discussion group meaningful—even a virtual discussion group. There’s something about getting the “real story” from someone that makes us feel more connected and seen. People can relate to another's realness, and it gives us permission to be more open and honest.To start off a discussion, you may not want to open up with vulnerability. It can feel a bit aggressive. So start off with a simple, easy, and fun question that everyone can answer. This gets everyone to step up and feel like a participant in the discussion.One exercise I love to do for both in-person and virtual events, is have everyone “arrive” in the space. Everyone’s coming from another meeting, another task, a day of work, in different places in the world, and then suddenly they’re all in one room with a new group of people. By having everyone “arrive”, they can feel present in the new space together, and leave the rest of their day behind them. You’ll have more present, more focused attendees as a result.There are lots of ways to have people arrive in your space. Scott Shigeoka, Entrepreneur in Residence at GoDaddy, likes to use breathing and mindfulness exercises. “Noticing your breath or another mindfulness exercise like imagining the little details in your day from the moment you woke up to getting to the meeting,” says Scott. You can start by simply asking everyone to take three deep breaths together, and counting them out. “If you present it well, it doesn't have to feel 'woo-woo.," Scott says. “I've done this even in rural/conservative spaces. It helps people feel more present and mindful, which is helpful for any moment of gathering.”Once everyone is engaged, I’ve found it’s important to model vulnerability and transparency for the group. Set the example you want them to follow for the rest of the discussion. Share a vulnerable story. Be transparent about a challenge you’re facing. When you as the leader does this, it lets all the participants know that it’s a safe space. Vulnerability is always optional. But you’ll be shocked how quickly people will open up once they’ve been given social permission.

6. Keep groups to 10 people or less and give people enough time

When someone invites me to a 30-minute discussion group, you can count on me not coming. I know it’s not going to work. Introductions take about 2 minutes per person. If you have a group of 10, you’ll barely finish remembering everyone’s favorite movie before the call is almost over.I’m also very skeptical of a group discussion with more than 8 people in the group. 10 is about the max I’d recommend. Any higher than that, and there’s just no way everyone will feel like they have an opportunity to contribute. If you’re okay with more people passively participating, you can go bigger.I recommend keeping your group to 8 or fewer people and making the discussion 60-90 minutes.If you have a bigger group, then you can split it out into subgroups using the breakout feature on tools like Zoom.

7. Send out technical and format instructions ahead of time

When using new digital tools like Zoom, Hangouts, Google Meet, or any other virtual event tool, you’ll want to make sure everyone is set up with their tech before the call. Send out clear instructions for everything they’ll need to set up and test ahead of time.Recommend that everyone uses headphones to keep background sound in check.And let them know that they need to arrive on time because showing up late to a virtual discussion group can actually be very disruptive (and they miss all the intros).Another pro tip is to strongly recommend keeping the video on. It’s not always possible for everyone, depending on their internet strength and willingness to be on video, but it will make the discussion so much more intimate if you can see people’s faces and read their body language.

8. Decide on mute policy, switch to gallery view, and use hand signals

A best practice is usually to have everyone stay on mute when they’re not speaking. This prevents unexpected background noise when a truck goes by someone’s house, or their kids burst in the door.That said, not everyone follows that policy. Melissa Emler from Modern Learners has found that having everyone on mute can really stifle free-flowing conversation. In a small enough group, it can be really beneficial to keep everyone off mute.For this to work, you’ll want to ask everyone to make sure they’re in a quiet space for the call that won’t have background noise and be ready to mute if noise becomes an issue.I like to offer up hand signals that attendees can use to communicate without needing to vocalize, which can be very disruptive. Instead, I recommend they can raise their hand when they have a question, use spirit fingers to “applaud,” and use the “surfs up” hand gesture when they agree with someone.My wife is a middle school teacher and taught me these hand signals. They work brilliantly!

9. Make sure all virtual discussion groups have a facilitator

Another cardinal sin of hosting virtual discussion groups letting them run without a group leader to moderate the discussion and keep time.This happens a lot in larger events where it seems easy enough to just choose topics, assign people to groups, and let them chat!First off, if you’re doing that, you probably also haven’t set ground rules and a format or agenda. Or if you have, good luck having it enforced.The worst part of groups without a facilitator is that, without fail, there will be a participant who just takes control of the conversation and doesn’t leave room for anyone else to speak. And if no one was assigned the role of “moderator”, no one will want to speak up to ask that person to step back. It’s not their role.So trust me, every group you organize, make sure there’s a facilitator.At our CMX Summit birds-of-feather tables, we let a community volunteer facilitate a discussion and we provide them with guidance on how to be a great facilitator. We share the rules and format with them and make sure they feel prepared.It will make all the difference in the world.

10. Consider finding a place to document the discussion or minutes

A lot of valuable information can be shared in virtual discussion groups. Kevon Cheung, CEO of the virtual event platform Toasty, recommends documenting the conversation, either just for the group or to share broadly after the call. “The last thing you want is that the discussion goes on for 90 minutes and people leave the session without knowing what the summary, takeaway, or follow up is. It can feel like a waste of time if everyone has an amazing chat but it cannot be carried forward,” says Kevon.You can document your call simply by creating a Google Doc or Notion page, or use virtual whiteboards like Miro.Then assign or ask for a volunteer who can take some notes throughout the session, or open it up for everyone to contribute live throughout the call. “Be sure to highlight that only important points should be noted, not every single line of words like a transcript,” Kevon suggests. “Use a color code to highlight certain items. E.g., red is for owners and blue stands for follow-up items.”

11. Embrace awkward silences, and politely call on specific people to participate

We’ve all experienced that awkward silence where someone asks a question to a group of people, and no one steps up to answer. If you’re the facilitator, you’ll have an urge to fill in the space yourself. Fight that urge! Sometimes it’s important to just let the silence sit, and leave it to your participants to fill it in with their voice.Other times, you’ll notice that someone hasn’t had a chance to say something yet, and you want to make sure they have a chance to contribute. Or you know of someone in the group who would have a good answer, and you want to nudge them to jump in.This is one area that differs a lot from in-person discussions, according to Nina Rong, VP of Communications at Generalized Intelligence. “In face-to-face discussion, people understand it’s their turn to share through eye contact and subtle body gesture. In virtual group discussions, we need to be more explicit in our expectations to others.”So it’s important to ask specific questions to specific participants in virtual discussion groups. “Throwing open-ended questions like ‘What do you think about this?’ to everyone will result in either total silence, or multiple members attempting to speak at the same time,” says Nina. As the facilitator, you can shape the conversation based on who you ask questions to. Use your power!

There you have it. You’re ready to host a virtual discussion for the ages!

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, don’t sweat it. Just start! You’ll pick up on many of these tips organically by just getting your people in to the space. The truth is, when you bring the right group of people together into a shared space, with the right purpose, it’s almost impossible for magic to NOT happen.Special thank you to the folks from the CMX Community for your edits and contributions to this post:Piper WilsonRachel Ben HamouKevon CheungNina RongMatt ArmstrongBeth McIntyre

March 30, 2020
May 19, 2023

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