26 March 2021

Building the container

How to have effective online meetings

Online meetings and conversations are here to stay. In his first blog of two, mediator Owen Bubbers-Jones explores how by building an effective ‘container’ for meeting participants, church communities can chart their course post-pandemic with greater skill, confidence and collaboration.

Take time

I often come to online meetings feeling distracted, frazzled, and frankly annoyed that I have to attend yet another one. Many of us hardly leave our chairs all day, and yet mentally we’re exhausted, frequently notching up six-plus Zoom sessions per day.

So it’s essential that we create a means of drawing participants from the grind of the everyday towards a more intentional and connected frame of mind and heart.

That may feel like a luxury we can ill afford, given time constraints and the need to get through the agenda. Also, we might feel self-conscious, fearing ridicule for apparently straying into ‘touchy-feely’ territory.

And yet such a mechanism is even more important when online. Not only because our church communities are relying on decision-makers to take effective, consensus-driven decisions at a time of profound uncertainty, but also because we are seeking to do so using a more limited channel of communication, in which some of the ‘rich “music” and “dance” of tone of voice and body language’¹ are inevitably lost.

Five to ten minutes is a small investment worth making for more effective and compassionate deliberations.

Slow down and check-in

Start by slowing things down. A simple ‘check-in’ invites participants to press pause and take note of what they are feeling. For example:

My name is Owen and I am checking in.

In my body I feel…e.g. a sore back or tiredness in my shoulders

Emotionally I feel…e.g. joy, sadness, anger

My intention for this session is…e.g. to listen to others

This simple practice counters the tendency for the mind to dominate over heart and body. It also reminds us that our fellow participants are merely human, and much more than the professional personas that we typically bring to online meetings. Also, we may well be surprised by what we hear, thus encouraging us to question incomplete judgements and expectations.

My experience suggests that the harder a group finds it to meaningfully check-in, the more in need of one they likely are.

More top tips
  • Consider holding a few minutes of silence to enable people to centre themselves and/or pray quietly
  • Some communities have developed guidelines for acceptable online behaviour as a means to promote mutual accountability, trust and a safe-enough space
  • Have a clear agenda that is circulated prior to the meeting to help manage participants’ expectations
  • Consider setting a time limit for each speaker – this promotes fairness and ensures that a few people don’t dominate
  • If conflict is a real possibility, consider touching base with the relevant parties beforehand to assess a) how they may react to possible disagreement and b) how can they respond in a reasonable and constructive manner?
  • Appoint someone in advance to act as moderator (this does not necessarily need to be a clergy person) and clarify the value of this role early on to the group

Owen is director of Khuba Reconciliation, supporting Christian communities and those of other faiths regarding reconciliation and wellbeing. Contact owen@khubareconciliation.com

¹James Lindsay & Peter Boghossian, ‘How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide’, 2019: 52