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Effective facilitation in a remote world

July 31, 2020

The pandemic has changed the way we work. We are heavily reliant on tools like Zoom to have collaborative conversations while trying to avoid Zoom fatigue at the same time. Harsh reality indicates that remote meetings are here to stay, certainly in the short to medium term, with some organizations permanently changing the way they work.  Either way, when facilitating remotely, our natural instincts lead us to ask  ‘What tools can we use?’ rather than ‘What conversations do we need to have?’. To quote an old analogy, everything looks like a nail when all we have is a hammer.  A more holistic approach would be to ask what challenges are we facing?  Do you face any of these challenges with remote facilitation:

  • Lack of engagement
  • Participants checking out
  • Same voices dominating conversations
  • Low level of contribution from many on the call
  • Difficulty making decisions that stick
  • Sessions becoming repetitive and boring

In the Agile Manifesto we value ‘Individuals and Interactions over Processes and Tools’. Processes and tools are important, but we place more value on individuals and interactions. When it comes to remote facilitation, our focus is often on the tools, for example should we use Zoom or Microsoft Teams, Mural or Miro.

Here at IncrementOne whether we are conducting training, running workshops or facilitating conversations remotely, we focus on six key principles based on Sharon Bowman’s research on Brain Science for effective facilitation. In fact, these principles work for any type of facilitation, whether it be remote or in person.

Principle 1: Movement over sitting

Movement increases the oxygen to the brain, providing it stimulus to absorb conversations and information more easily. Sitting down for long periods of time, decreases the oxygen levels making active participation more difficult. Recent research by Liverpool John Moores University, conducted a number of experiments, where one group of volunteers were asked to sit at a desk without leaving their chairs and another were asked to take a walk every 30 mins. Researchers notice reduced blood flow in all experiments, however blood flow was restored by walking breaks.  

Key Learning: Create some energy in your sessions by including some movement exercises, and help prevent fatigue.

Principle 2: Talking over listening

We learn from each other - talking provides the opportunity to seek clarification, checking for understanding and relating to the discussion at hand. When people are talking, they will process the information faster. Three things are happening: they are listening, then absorbing the information and finally responding based on their understanding.  

Key Learning: When people are heard, it creates an environment for active participation.

Principle 3: Images over words

Using an old English adage, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’, the brain’s ability to remember images far exceeds the human brain’s ability to remember words. This is often referred to as the picture superiority effect. There is some great research that shows we have basically an infinite capacity for remembering images (tested 10,000 images and found a very high retention with only a couple of seconds to see each image), and we remember unusual and striking images better.

If you dare, take a short memory test here. How easy was it for you to remember the images?

Key Learning: Provide memorable images to summarize key points during workshops and meetings.

Principle 4: Writing over reading

It is very difficult to write without thinking, we first need to think about what we intend to write. Writing exercises allow every member in the session to express their voice and allow people to cognitively process their understanding of the information.    

Key Learning: The act of writing helps us commit information to memory as we write and create our own thoughts and not write verbatim.

Principle 5: Shorter over longer

Have you ever received a long voicemail message, where you had to replay the message several times just to note down the caller’s number? If you have, you're not alone!  The brain remembers in small chunks and there is a certain amount of time that one can concentrate for before becoming distracted and letting the mind wander off.  

Key Learning: Keep lecture elements short and to the point.

Principle 6: Different over same

The brain notices changes and we respond to those changes, in what is often referred to as orientation response. The orientation response is defined as ‘behavioural and physiological response to a novel or potentially threatening stimulus, including focusing attention on the source of the stimulus, turning the head and body towards it’.   

Key Learning: Provide unique images, phrases and observations that juxtapose the unusual with the relevant to make information memorable.

Stay tuned for a series of blogs on remote facilitation. In the next blog, we will explore how we can apply these six principles in practice.

Interested in becoming a catalyst for positive change in your organization?