9 April 2021

Facilitating the online conversation

Online meetings and conversations are here to stay. In his second blog of two, mediator Owen Bubbers-Jones explores how, by habituating effective practices, church communities can chart their course post-pandemic with greater skill, confidence and collaboration

Identify needs

Too often meetings can get stuck on presenting positions eg someone says: ‘I think X’. They may well speak with conviction and finality, yet this is usually only the starting point.

Maslow’s well-worn Hierarchy of Needs model is still too often forgotten in key moments. He rightly challenges us to drill down to the underlying needs that inform opinions and wants.

Whereas at the more superficial positional level, solutions are often zero sum in nature ie I win therefore you must lose, a needs-based conversation usually reveals numerous novel solutions that may be acceptable to all parties.  Furthermore, not only does this encourage participants to develop their own self-understanding (I find we rarely understand our needs as well as our wants) but also helps foster a greater sense of curiosity to proceedings.

Name what you do and don’t see

I recently saw a facilitator in action who masterfully witnessed what they saw and sensed as much as what they heard. Of course verbal content is key but other types should not be ignored.

For example, name the pace and energy of the meeting. Does it feel frenetic or lethargic? Do you sense that people are engaging with one another on the basis of authentic listening or are they perhaps ‘missing’ each other? Are we hearing from all participants or just a few? If so, why, and how can the session become more collaborative? Or perhaps you sense an elephant lurking in the room – what is not being said or shown, and is this worth reflecting back to the group?

Of course, effective witnessing requires careful judgement, timing and humility in equal measure. Benefits include encouraging participants to briefly ‘press pause’ and reflect on the observation  that is offered. It is a useful and non-confrontational means of encouraging conversation to remain on a constructive and more conscious track.

More top tips
  • Summarise regularly in order to capture key points and minimise misunderstandings
  • Model the behaviours that you wish to see in others – ‘the best critique of the bad is the practice of the better’[1]
  • Remind participants of shared values, especially when they have sincere disagreements
  • Bestow the gift of doubt[2] – make it ok to say ‘ I don’t understand’ or to not reach a conclusion as a group on a challenging issue, thus adding a tilt of curiosity and vulnerability to proceedings
  • Keep to agreed topics – sprawling, open-ended conversations tend to work less well online unless this has previously been agreed by the group
  • Articulate the consequences of constructive and unconstructive behaviours
  • Always clarify agreed actions and outstanding items at the end of meetings – it’s remarkable how easily misunderstandings can creep in
  • Consider asking the question of any proposed course of action – ‘does/will this serve?’ ie will this meet our individual and/or collective set of underlying needs?

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

[1] Richard Rohr, ‘Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality’, 2019

[2] James Lindsay & Peter Boghossian, ‘How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide’, 2019