When “stay-at-home” orders first went into effect this past March, I was not sure how I was going to manage. As a guy who works full-time in professional development, I spend almost all of my time in front of people, guiding learning and conversation … and much of that interaction is enhanced by my ability to intuitively read the room and to recognize emotions in my participants. I recognize that this same skill is essential to good CFG coaching.

How was I going to connect with others, just as well, in virtual environments?

While I may have struggled through the initial challenge of connecting with people from afar, I quickly discovered that I had an opportunity to connect with people in new ways. I also recognized that my experience using NSRF protocols could help me to capitalize on this new, unexpected opportunity. 

Like many of us in the education world, my work did not stop. We may have had to stay at home, but learning also had to continue. That was non-negotiable. I managed, but looking back there are three key tips I would have given myself:

Be open to reflective silences.

NSRF protocols are full of reflective silences, but virtual training has taught me that these may be needed even more, especially in virtual “rooms” full of people. Whether they are having trouble “unmuting” themselves or having trouble being “seen” by the presenter, people sometimes don’t respond in the same timely way that they may in-person. So, when facilitating, I now work in reflective silence more often. I’m intentional about it and let people know it will happen. Before moving onto a new topic, I make certain that nobody has been left out. 

One easy way to assure that all are being seen and that all are ready to move on to a new topic is to utilize a “fist of five.” Participants can be asked, without speaking to hold a hand up in front of their cameras with one, two, three, four, or five fingers showing. Participants holding up a “1” may not understand a current topic or may not be ready to move on. Participants holding up a “5” are in good shape and are ready to go on to something new. People holding up a “2,” “3,” or “4” are somewhere between. If your participants are hesitant about holding up fingers in front of the screen, the same concept can be used via the chatbox. Have everyone type in a number! However, the added benefit of having people hold up actual fingers allows the facilitator to actually look at and see every participant in the virtual room, so everyone is more likely to participate.

Recently, I had the chance to facilitate an NSRF activity – the Zones of Comfort, Risk, and Danger Activity – virtually. We even took the “fist of five” idea a step further and asked participants to pre-print small cards that indicated the “Comfort,” “Risk,” and “Danger” zone designations. Doing this allowed us to facilitate this activity and still allow participants to see the responses of everyone in the virtual “room,” just as they would in a physical room.

Share “air time.”

Some people are more comfortable talking when they can do so from their own homes rather than a work space; sometimes they may even grow a little too comfortable. They may not watch the screen as they’re speaking which prevents them from “feeling” everyone’s eyes on them, leading to more long-winded responses! So it’s important for me to utilize strategies to share air time when I facilitate meetings. Several NSRF protocols utilize a timer and this is NOT time to give that up. When people can see a clock ticking, they formulate their best answers and parse out the most important information to share. Especially if I am also allowing time for reflective silence, using a protocol allows for a great amount of quality information shared from the greatest number of people in a virtual training environment. This, however, requires me to frontload the use of the timing mechanism into the training. NSRF Protocols encourage us to share the “steps” of a protocol before using the protocol. As I go through those steps, I may point out that I’m going to use a good old-fashioned timer to keep us on track. When time runs out, we need to move to the next step. Making the use of a timer part of our agreements early in a virtual session will push people to monitor their air time, maybe even more so than they do in person.

When topics have the potential to elicit several responses – as we hope your team conversations do – one challenge of a physical training is recognizing which people want to respond and keeping track of the order in which each person has volunteered. However, virtual training actually makes this easier! By asking participants to type a “1” in the chatbox if they would like to respond, it gives you – as the facilitator – a clean list of participants hoping to respond as you move through the conversation. It’s also nice because participants don’t have to repeatedly raise their hand hoping to catch your attention, or hold their hands in the air for a long while, as they might have to do in a physical environment.

It’s okay (and maybe better) for virtual training to be different from in-person training! 

It was strange at first to be talking to a group while they were simultaneously using the chat function at the same time – that was just like them “passing notes” during my class! – but I quickly became okay with this. We are humans who have been raised to be able to multitask. And importantly, they were actually adding to our time together by doing so! Questions and related side conversations allowed me to add to our work in a unique way. I didn’t have to guess what people were thinking; I already knew because they wrote it in a chat box! 

That said, off topic chatting and jokes can sometimes be a distraction, and during some protocols (particularly dilemmas or other sensitive work) it is really important to keep everyone’s attention on faces rather than the chat box. So again, I have found that frontloading a virtual training with agreements around the use of the chat box can make it a positive rather than a negative. 

Aside from the benefits of a “chat box” in protocols, I learned to think “outside the box” regarding training in this new virtual venue. For instance, conversations that may have previously been handled with the entire group could now be handled in one-on-one or small group settings, enabling me to more deeply understand and differentiate with individual participants. I’ve also discovered that some aspects of training can be done asynchronously, allowing me to provide videos and places to chat or collaborate on each person’s own time before (or after) bringing together the entire group. 

There are many, many things I’ve learned in the past months, and my list is not limited to these three learnings. Perhaps most importantly, my open-mindedness to the opportunity that virtual meeting and training give us has allowed me to capitalize on this experience. I certainly hope my participants would agree. Being purposeful about using the virtual space differently than the traditional training space has allowed me to create a series of experiences my participants have enjoyed.