Facilitating Dialogue Online

Moving from a face-to-face setting to a virtual one can be challenging. Once you add difficult content related to Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, it can seem beyond just difficult. Sustained Dialogue Institute has developed a list of suggestions for holding dialogue in an online format. 

How to manage technology, access, and power in online spaces

It is essential that you create multiple points of access:

  • If you are holding a dialogue asynchronously (everyone online at different times), require a post by date – the date everyone must post their initial response to the discussion board, in addition to a reply by date.
  • If you are holding dialogue synchronously (everyone online at the same time) via Zoom – make sure you enable the feature for folks to call in.
    • Synchronous sessions require a few more steps to ensure they are accessible:
      • Remember to have things both visually and verbally – e.g., if you have reflective questions for the group, do not just post them in the chat – read them out loud so anyone phoning in can also hear the question.
      • Do not use the Zoom polling feature, as it does not work if folks are calling in via phone.
      • Collect accommodation information in advance (such as captioning); Zoom has a third-party solution for captioning, Google Meet has a live captioning feature.
      • After 10/15 minutes, lock the meeting in Zoom to  prevent trolling (or unwanted attendees).
      • Normalize the fact that there will be tech issues and digital inequity. Start by saying, “We all have different internet speeds and may have technology trouble – that is okay.” 
        • If someone drops off from Zoom (or other platform), type the last thing the group heard in the chat. So when the person rejoins you can remind them where they left off, if they would like to continue. (They will not be able to see the chat from when they were away – so this is a note for you as the facilitator.)
      • Co-facilitate dialogue when possible. This allows for someone to facilitate and someone to manage the chat feature and tech issues.
      • Notice and ask if there is a tech issue: “I notice XXXXX is breaking up. Can you repeat what you just said?”
      • Check in with the group regularly after the dialogue to make sure the platform is working for everyone.
      • Folks phoning into the dialogue can use breakout rooms – they just have to go into the room differently. Let them know to listen for the correct prompts.
      • You will not be able to screen share across breakout rooms. 
      • If folks will be on their phones, send out critical notes and images in advance.
      • Make sure to provide the reflection question before folks go into breakout rooms.

How to set up the container for dialogue

  • Use Group Norms – such as the establishing community agreements
  • Be upfront about expectations for recording or screenshots. If you are holding a synchronous dialogue, be clear that folks should not take a screenshot as that puts others in the dialogue at risk.
  • Do not allow participants to chat with each other in side conversations of a synchronous dialogue – you can turn this off in Zoom. They can chat with the whole group or the host only. 
  • In synchronous dialogues, turn off the copy and paste function for the chat to safe guard everyone’s privacy.
  • In synchronous dialogues, acknowledge that folks may be in different situations (e.g., at home or in a public space) where they cannot fully share verbally, and they may use the chat to share. If folks are on the phone, you, as the facilitator, may read the chat anonymously for the poster. Remind folks to respect each other’s right to stay safe and post in these settings.
  • Remember for synchronous dialogues: Zoom can be overwhelming. Your goal is to make the space as simple as possible. Make it mimic real life face-to-face dialogue when possible.

General Tips and Tricks for managing dialogue spaces

  • In a synchronous dialogue, you have to manage who speaks when:
    • You can go chaotic – it will be a free-for-all for the first few meetings, but the group will develop their own flow. Remember that, during the first few meetings, folks will be uncomfortable with silence.
    • Sequence – Use the boxes on the facilitator’s screen and name who will go next in that order. Always let the folks on the phone go first, because they cannot read visual markers telling them to go next.
    • Let them know in advance if you are only taking a few comments for the discussion point.
    • Use the blue “Raise hand” function in Zoom, or have them raise their hands visually. (“Raised hand” does not work for folks phoning into Zoom, so start with, “Does anyone on the phone have anything to say before we take other questions/responses?”)
    • If students are using the phone app for the platform to participate – and they are traveling (walking, driving) – treat them as if they are in the phone group, because they should not be looking at the screen.
  • In asynchronous dialogue, manage the flow – remind students of netiquette rules and expectations for participation.
    • Set the discussion to require students to provide an initial post before seeing others, but turn off the feature that lets them edit their response. This prevents them from posting an innocuous or unhelpful comment to see the other posts before they truly respond to the prompt.

How to address power dynamics in facilitation of dialogue

  • In a synchronous dialogue, you have to manage the power dynamics.
    • Balance airtime between extroverts and introverts (who is the quickest doesn’t always go first).
    • Set expectations about silence and that it is okay and necessary.
    • When you are leaving time for comments, make sure you leave enough time for folks to type their comments or to unmute themselves. It takes a little bit longer than face-to-face.
    • Give folks an idea of how much reflection time will be available before they speak or respond out loud (essential for your phone folks).
      • Reinforce the time to reflect. If someone starts talking before the reflection time is up, say, “Wait; don’t share yet,” or, “You don’t have to share yet.”
    • If folks cut out a bit while they are talking, do not assume everyone got it. Say, “Here is what I heard; is that correct?”
    • Look for patterns in who shares and how they share. Address imbalances or inequities.
  • In an asynchronous dialogue, require reflection before discussion – similar to how Jennifer and Laura laid out the Institute. It allows everyone to gather their thoughts before diving in. 
  • Breaking students into groups, either for synchronous or asynchronous dialogue, can be challenging. Here are few ways to consider it beyond random assignments:
    • Don’t be afraid to break up groups by race or identities. Some issues require or need for students to talk in like-groups. This is hard to do if you have not done any identity work prior, so make sure you give students the reflective tools ahead of time.
    • Or, have students break up by similar relationships to the topic: “Folks who are directly impacted by this,” “folks who have not experienced this, but want to explore it,” and “folks who do not want to talk about this, but know we are going to” – this group likely requires a facilitator.