It’s Pink Shirt Day, and what better time to talk about how to include kindness in our online spaces. Here are five ways to be kind to your participants when designing and facilitating your next virtual session.

#1 – Make good decisions about what should be a virtual session

This first tip applies to both meetings and learning events. One of the kindest things we can do for our participants is to make the right choice about what should be a virtual session in the first place. For meetings: If your plan is to just go around the virtual room and give long reports to each other, that probably should be an email instead. For learning events: If you’re just going to present at people for long periods of time without allowing them a chance to interact, maybe it would be kinder to everyone to create a video and put it on a website so that people could choose to watch it at their leisure. If we’re going to make people show up at the same place and time virtually, I hope that we’ll focus on making it count. Design virtual sessions around participation, collaboration, ideation and discussion and take care of the presentations and report outs another way.

#2 – Expect variability

People are unique, which means that the ways they approach learning are also unique and vary from one person to the next. The more we expect variability in our participants, the more we can remember to design for that variability when planning our virtual sessions. Consult the Universal Design for Learning guidelines as you plan your next learning event. Be clear about the learning goals you want for your participants and think about how you can be flexible in the ways you propose that participants can achieve them. One simple way to design for participant choice is to invite participant contributions via the chat, by annotating a shared slide, or verbally, so that people can choose what’s easiest for them depending on their abilities and technical considerations.

#3 – Start with social times

Don’t wait until the exact starting time of the session to begin your learning event. “Start before the start” by opening the virtual room at least ten minutes before the start of the session to allow participants time to meet you and meet each other. (And tell participants you’re going to do this in pre-session communication.) I like to encourage people to say hello (verbally or in the chat) to someone they might know in the room. I also give them an optional exercise to do – such as drawing on a shared image – to allow us the opportunity to start to laugh and have fun together. I’ve heard of other facilitators giving participants time to meet each other socially in breakout rooms before the session starts. Whatever you choose, think about how to duplicate online the social times that we normally have in the face-to-face classroom. The more we all feel like we know and like others in the room, the more kind we’ll likely all be to each other. Social times can help build trust.

#4 – Allow people to make choices around participation

I was a participant in a short event led by someone in my facilitators group the other day and she said these lovely words to encourage people to participate in ways that worked for them in the session. She said, “Every activity is just what’s calling to you. You’re choosing to do what your soul wants to do.” While you may choose to use language that works better in your setting, the concept remains the same. Allow participants the option to not participate in an activity if they don’t want to, perhaps by turning their video off or not clicking the button to join a breakout room. Of course, if you’re grading your participants and they do actually have to do the activity, this is an extra level of consideration. Perhaps you could give them the option to do an activity alone versus in a pair or group if they would like. Again, if you’re clear on your learning goal it will help you decide how flexible you can be in terms of allowing participant choice over what they do and how they do it.

#5 – Invite comfort items and practices

Meeting virtually seems to make some people more uncomfortable than meeting in person. Think of ways to ease those feelings of vulnerability and invite your participants to prepare and do things to make themselves feel more at ease. For example, in a workshop I facilitate about games that people can play with each other in virtual spaces, I’ve included a dance activity. Knowing that dancing on camera may make some people feel uncomfortable, I specifically encourage them to grab a blanket or stuffy or some other comfort item to wear or hold while dancing if they would like. My activity requires cameras on in order for it to work, but in other activities you might just say, “And feel free to turn your camera off if you want to dance in private.”

Other comfort practices you might include are encouraging to people to hold a pet or place items near them in their space that make them feel good. If we explicitly talk about and give permission to participants to do what they need to do to make themselves feel comfortable hopefully they’ll feel more able to participate in the session fully. (Which will actually help them learn better!)

Also, don’t just default to allowing cameras off for comfort. Find ways for people to stay on camera if possible – which helps us all engage more with each other – yet still feel like they can do what you’re inviting them to do in a way that works for them.

Bonus  РExtend kindness inward

Lastly, let’s extend kindness to ourselves as well as to our participants. Learning how to design and facilitate online meetings and learning events is a new skill. Like anything new we try to do, it takes time to feel comfortable and competent in the role. Be kind to yourself as you recognize all you’re accomplishing as you continue to learn about and practice great facilitation.

Want a bit more help? Join me in my upcoming virtual workshop, Creating Effective Virtual Learning Experiences, coming up on March 11, 2021.

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