I’ve been facilitating workshops for years, in mental health and business strategy. Adapting design thinking exercises to mental health has been so effective. It’s engaging but it’s also incredibly useful for understanding complex challenges we’re running into and seeing solutions to get out of them. The thing is, though, traveling for an in-person workshop to do that work is prohibitively expensive for many people. So when I was traveling to Europe for a meditation retreat, I started hunting for a central city that people could conveniently (and cheaply) travel to and stay at for a weekend, but there were some issues…
No matter which venue I picked, running a full weekend workshop, which meant people needed to book at least 3 nights in a hotel, maybe take a day off work to travel, and at least pay to cover the costs of the venue and food, quickly turned it into a pricey weekend. Keeping the workshops in-person meant I was making them inaccessible. So I needed to figure out how to take the experience online.
I rented out a smaller room at a co-working space in Lisbon so I had a great internet connection and then ran the workshop from there on Zoom using the walls in the room to help explain the exercises to the participants doing them at home. There were a few things that helped the workshop go well:
1. Set expectations and principles in advance.
If we were meeting in-person, it would be very natural to participate and for people to see you. It’d be weird if you checked and were working on your laptop while others got down to work. Online, though, people might join your workshop hoping just to watch and listen and not even participate. That doesn’t fly in my workshops. So I make sure I inform everybody, before they even sign up, and then remind them in emails, what the expectations are for participation in the workshop.
2. Maintain principles that make in-person workshops effective.
Part of setting the expectations is explaining some of the principles upfront. Making ideas tangible, seeing systems, sharing stories, looking at real data—these are all principles that make an in-person workshop deliver useful outcomes, and the same is true online. Whatever principles you’re working with, make sure you translate them to the online experience and consider the limitations. You don’t have real eye contact, you can’t read a lot of body-language, you don’t have physical structures to leverage, like a table. You can’t say: “Let’s go around the table and introduce ourselves.” Everybody is seeing a different order of people on their screen!
Run through your workshop in advance and don’t assume you’ll just figure out a hack on the fly. That only creates confusion and awkward silences and your participants will start having their own private meetings in the chat window. Consider how you’ll pass power around a room that’s spread out over a continent or two.
3. Develop your personal experience with handling difficult subjects online.
If you’re doing mental health work and you want to take it online, I wouldn’t recommend jumping right into group workshops if you haven’t worked with people one-on-one online yet.
Difficult topics will come up during the workshop and a lot of the tools you might use in-person to show empathy, to make space, to signal a pause and shift in the room’s energy—you won’t have them available.
Have a plan for what you’ll do if somebody starts to cry. Have ways to verbally or in writing capture important topics that come up. If we’re in-person, I can let people know they’re heard, I can write something on the wall. Their story has tangible impact. That’s still necessary online. I like having a wall behind me I can use to put notes on so I can show participants they’re heard. Tools like that become important so your participants don’t feel like they’re baring their souls into a void.
4. Manage energy proactively (even more than you would in-person).
How we manage energy when facilitating an online workshop is even more important than in-person. And it’s SUPER important in-person!
The thing is, if you’re doing an in-person workshop and an exercise is dragging on too long, or you need to extend a lunch a bit while you finish getting something ready, you can get away with it pretty easily. People are basically trapped. But if you don’t have a great pace with an online workshop, you could really lose your participants. There’s no social pressure preventing them from opening up another tab or literally wandering off.
I pace things a bit differently than I do in-person. I’m still looking at three things with energy: Sharing, creating, and synthesizing. A workshop is a balance of all three. But I find it helps to move more quickly between them online so we’re maintaining that connection. An exercise that might have been 30 minutes, I may divide up into two parts. So there’s some creating, then we share our work, we explore insights, I share some tips on the next step in the exercise, and then we’re back to creating, and repeat. It is more like running an interesting variety show. Because that’s what you’re competing with! Your participants could be on YouTube right now.
5. Be open to it being better than an in-person workshop.
Something I’ve noticed when participating in online meetings and workshops is that people running the meetings like to diminish the value of it, apologize for it being online, and just generally setup the meeting or workshop like it will be less-than, that the connection can’t be there, that the insights and connections aren’t as powerful.
But in the feedback from this online workshop and the ones I’ve been doing as part of the mental health scrums, repeatedly, people not only mention the insights they uncovered through the exercises, but how much they valued connecting with people from around the world that have similar experiences to them.
Creating space and time to share stories about our journeys and understand how to move through challenges together, can be just as powerful in an online space as it is in a real-world space.