Anthony Rocco
Stone Soup
The shadow side of virtual facilitation - Stone Soup
North & South America / Europe
Cultural Transformation

Many opportunities open up when working with virtual facilitation, but there are both implicit and explicit implications of solely working online. Many aspects achieved and received through physical connection are limited, if not completely lost when translated virtually. For many facilitators, this experience can be one that is both challenging and depleting.

Stone soup is a decentralized intentional community focused on the co-creation of nourishing experiences. We work with Individuals and gatherings of people with the aim to bring to life the principles and values held in ancient folk tales.

What shift did Stonesoup have to make because of Covid-19?

The constraints of COVID-19 shelter in place shifted our attention from organizing in-person camp style gatherings, to questioning our assumptions about what is possible digitally and thus creating a sandbox to explore that together. Stone Soup finds so much of its magic in the simple act of gathering a group of ~30 in a cabin in the woods where they create meals and experiences for each other, a stated invitation is for folks to put down their devices and unplug for the time they are at the camp. We ask this of each other, because we feel technology often distracts us from the beauty and magic that is right in front of us. This situation, however, has asked us to rethink those biases and has invited us to see how we can be intentional with technology, in order to capture the same magic that we bring to our in-person gatherings.

How to create virtual spaces in the same ways that we create physical ones?

There are many aspects of hosting a physical space that cannot easily be replicated into that of virtual. An example of this is when people arrive into a physical space, there tends to be some time before the event begins where people can engage in conversation with one another, in an informal manner. This in turn, helps build connection and engagement amongst the participants. In the virtual space, however, people tend to arrive late, whilst also being solely focused on the work at hand. This had me wondering if there were ways to create similar spaces in order for people to connect, engage and chat before a process began, in order to enhance the experience and connection of the people involved.  

Some ideas I had were to:

  •  send physical objects to participants (a unique invitation card, an object relevant to the workshop such as a blue marble to visualise the overview effect);
  • to invite people to go into nature at the same time, or to take a walk together and have each person take it in turns to show others their environment by turning on the video.

One focus I wanted to bring in was that of making the meetings ones about ‘sharing’ and not about ‘telling’. Keeping things simple can already make it quite special. These are some of the ways that I have considered could create shared experiences, whilst being in separate locations. Those shared experiences enable us to connect on a human level even though we are not together virtually. Another benefit of the joint walk is that when you walk and talk at the same time, you tend to be able to both remember and digest the content of a process much better.

Finally, something I embed in my facilitation is time for the participants to translate the content and conversations into meaningful information for their context. For physical events, commuting to and from the event helps us digest, stepping into a different space, show your mind and your body that you move into a work mode. Creating processing time is quite important for us. 

“The most important part of every experience is reflection and integration.” Paul Bulencea – Founder of the College of Extraordinary Experiences

Limitations to the virtual space

As a facilitator moving into virtual facilitation, I have to admit it requires a lot. The main being how much energy it took from me. This resulted in me needing to take a break, so I stepped out of the world of virtual facilitation for a few months. When it comes to energy, the virtual space is like a black hole. It takes a lot as a virtual facilitator, as the energy that I give out, does not come back. It is difficult to gage what is happening in the breakout rooms, how people are feeling and how they will come back into the main space. I have no clue! A key point is the inability to have eye contact with anyone, and it is hard to send the room as I am unaware of what is going on. I found that it is so easy to check out in the virtual setting, being on a device designed for distraction. This has massive impacts on how present people are able to be in a virtual setting. It is a lot harder to engage. 

One thing that I have found to be important in preventing these distractions and to help ground people at the beginning, is to build meeting agreements, such as agreeing to turn off notifications on their device, or not to check other platforms whilst participating in the process. I tend to find that having a group acknowledge and agree to these conditions, either by saying it aloud, or giving a thumbs up, tends to be a positive way to start the process.

In general, I feel there is a lot of pressure on the facilitator to be the one that enables and sustains the energy in the room throughout the process, whereas in person, it can be shared and co-created by the group. Whether it’s building excitement, or momentum, in the virtual space, it is solely up to the facilitator to fulfill this role. This I have found to be very draining on my energy resources and I have found that it is essential, as a virtual facilitator, to take more frequent breaks in order to renew the energy that is lost. I feel there is extra attention to self-care that is needed as a virtual facilitator, otherwise it is hard to continue in the work for very long. 

One key difference that I have found, is that between using video and audio. Remaining in the virtual form tends to be very stationary, especially when using video settings. People who naturally need movement, are forced to be anchored through the screen. I have, however, found that if you use your phone with just the audio, you are able to have broader experiences, more connected to that of in person events, such as getting a drink, sharing meals and participating in an activity such as a shared walk.

Although a difficult transition, with clear limitations, there are also awesome sides to working on the virtual platform. Most notably the ability to move people into breakout rooms in a few seconds and get them back when time is over, versus running around a physical space calling for people to return to the main room.

Some final advice for the facilitators out there?
  1. As a consultant, I have worked with so many clients who use virtual tools with their dispersed teams. My bias, however, is always towards in-person meetings. I realize that can be difficult, compounded by the environmental implications of travel, but why my bias is as such, is I believe one needs a solid relationship with our fellows, whether that is an intentional community or a company. I feel it can be extremely difficult to cultivate high-quality relationships, solely in a digital format. I have found that often teams use these digital tools to conduct meetings, which leaves everyone feeling disengaged and exhausted. What I have learned is that what can be done in a room in 60 minutes cannot be done on a call, so I would always suggest giving your digital meetings the proper time they need.
  2. Bring a 1-20 minute interactive experience to facilitate with strangers. Experiences can be silly, deep, educational, experimental, whatever – anything goes as long as it’s participatory.
  3. In a digital space, you don’t have all the senses to play with, but depending on how you want everyone to feel, you still have a lot of atmosphere choices, and participation techniques to consider.

The normal is always shifting. There are people, likely younger generations, who are hosting some pretty radical parties online, doing something bonkers that I can’t even imagine. We aren’t invited! I do have a guilty fantasy of trying a full VR session, where we could all work on the same whiteboard… there is something really special when folks have the opportunity to work on the same whiteboard together.