Groupwork Centre Blog

Virtual heat – Facilitating tricky social media conversations

Many of our group interactions and encounters happen within social media platforms these days. Depending on the forum, there is often a set of rules that members sign up to when they join the group and there are “admins” or “moderators” who have the job of addressing problems and complaints raised by members.

We’ve noticed lately, people in these roles are being called on more to deal with tricky situations. It got us thinking about whether our facilitation skills can be useful in online social media settings and what we might need to take into account.

And is a bunch of people reading and writing stuff on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Whatsapp  really a group anyway?

Yes, there is a list of members and yes, they have probably answered a few questions to be admitted, but it’s likely they don’t actually know each other. Unless there is an “in real life” component to the group. On the other hand, we recognise names and photos and there is a relationship that emerges from reading messages in the online space.

The group also operates an an asynchronous environment, so poeple are on all the time, whether or not all members or admins are present – we dip in and out.

Imagine if our face-to-face groups ran like this. People popping in, leaving, engaging only in some parts of the conversation, maybe throwing a grenade and immediately leaving the group! Then someone else arrives and asks what happened, but most of the people involved in the difficult interaction are no longer in the room.

That scenario is enough to strike fear into the hearts of even the most seasoned facilitator! So what could we do in this situation?

  • Be clear about your role and what’s within your control – this could include the way the technology/platform works.
  • Ensure there is a clear purpose. Has it changed? Why? How? And communicate it … often.
  • Any group needs to check in on their group agreements from time to time.This could be a simple reminder or an active process to see if what’s in place still serves the group. If not, what’s the process for amendment?
  • Balancing the needs of the group with those of individuals can be tricky when there is a mismatch. This is where the “notice and name” microskill could be useful as a starting point with “standing by” as the conversation continues.
  • Be transparent about the choices you make and explain your reasons to the group. As with facilitating a group in person, it’s important to not react and to be aware of where you’re coming from. Check in with yourself before posting, are you coming from a wise or reactive place when responding?
  • Time means something different in the online space, where people are coming and going and may come to a conversation late or not read all the comments and posts that are relevant. There may be “ghosts” that emerge and need to be addressed. Regular “summarising and clarifying” posts can be helpful to keep people up to date and connected.

Listening to each other in a space where the communication happens in written form also presents challenges. Without the cues of body language and intonation, we interpret tone based on our own experience of other people, the feelings the topic being discussed evokes and maybe based on something that happened years ago if we are triggered. Considering how these factors can be acknowledged and addressed in a group agreement could be useful.

And don’t forget, there are often legal responsibilities attached to administrator and moderator roles in some online forums, particularly on Facebook. Being aware of your legal responsibilities in any group is critical, both for the safety of the group and our own wellbeing.

These are just some ideas that come to mind. If you are interested in learning more about facilitation microskills you might like to join our next Facilitation Skills Training.  We’d also love to continue the conversation. What have you noticed in online groups? Join us on the Groupwork Centre Facebook page.

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