image from TreasureLA

Want to facilitate online meetings that don’t suck? Try the nesting doll approach

Meetings were never a fountain of pure joy, but the virtual version is generally much worse. People feel anxious, unsure about how to contribute and often burnt out before the meeting even begins. After over a year of this new normal, facilitating online meetings that are productive and engaging can feel like an impossible task. Leaders everywhere are wondering, what is it that makes some virtual meetings run so smoothly while others feel excruciating and how do we run more of the good ones?

Full disclosure: my virtual facilitation practice is one born of necessity, not passion. The truth is that I really miss facilitating in person. I miss the energy. I miss arriving in new spaces, taking in new sights and smells and sounds. I miss noticing people’s shoes. The abrupt silence I feel after clicking “End Meeting for All” leaves me with a feeling of whiplash, as if a door just got slammed in my face.

It’s nothing like how meetings ended in the before times where I would linger and casually chat with people about something we discussed. I’ve had to adapt, scheduling time with clients and colleagues to debrief or forcing myself to send a feedback form asking folks for their candid reaction to our time together, since I must admit, I have very little sense of how it landed.

Luckily, over this last year, I’ve not only gained comfort with online meeting facilitation, I’ve also come to understand some of the unique benefits of the format. In cyberspace, because our interactions are so flattened, facilitators actually have more distilled, highly concentrated power over the space we hold. And with that power comes responsibility.

Because participants don’t have access to tons of sensory input (smells, physical touch, commutes, bottom halves of bodies) virtual facilitation needs to be especially intentional and articulate. The language you use, and how you show up to the space is no longer just a suggestion for how to interact, it alone sets the tone for the interaction. If you say it, it becomes what’s happening.

Ultimately, we are creating worlds with our words in every meeting. We have an incredible opportunity to leverage the features of virtual meetings in order to generate experiences that engage participants, instead of alienate them.

And this is where the nesting dolls come in. The crucial point here is that you need to double down on providing structure in order to enable folks to feel safe being generative and vulnerable when meeting virtually. In person, such directives might feel static, or overly formal, but people can’t effectively participate in online discussions without them.

Not only do instructions clarify expectations, they are also a critical tactic for undoing systemic oppression in our society. Creating a container that is scaffolded by explicit rules for interactions is an antidote to the inherently imbalanced way in which people naturally share space, which is governed by racist, sexist, ageist and ableist notions of whose voices deserve to be heard over others.

I’ve facilitated thousands of hours of online meetings since the beginning of the Pandemic, and the sum total of my epic failures and great successes over the thousands of hours of online meeting has taught me me one thing: the nesting doll approach can transform a meeting.

You can visualize the experience like a series of cascading containers, outlining each phase in advance and fitting it snugly into its surroundings, piece by piece. Each transition requires a deliberate articulation of the shift in focus so that participants understand how to contribute. No one phase exists in isolation — each one has a role in relation to each other.

This kind of structure is critical when it comes to the formless, numbing, anxiety-provoking space of virtual meeting rooms. Remember how satisfying it was to play with these toys as a kid? We can channel that into our meetings as adults by being intentional about, and taking care of the spaces we create.

Essentially, the nesting doll approach is a way to clearly structure the flimsy, default shape of online meetings by providing the rules of the game so that everyone knows how to play. Here’s how it works:

  • The Outer Doll: Preparing in advance (before the meeting starts)
  • The Second Biggest Doll: Opening the meeting (the first 10 minutes)
  • The Third Biggest Doll: Structuring the discussion (the bulk of the meeting)
  • The Almost Smallest Doll: Closing the meeting (the last 10 mins)
  • The Smallest Doll: Taking care of each person in the room (throughout the meeting)

Breaking it in these five parts will help you make progress toward your meeting’s goals (whether that is to make your child feel celebrated on their graduation day, or to define your organization’s strategic objectives for Q4) and ensure that you bring all participants along for the journey.

The Outer Doll: Preparing in advance (before the meeting starts)

This is the piece that holds all the others, it’s the first point of contact with the idea of this meeting, for you and your attendees.

  • Be proactive about accessibility. Schedule the meeting at a time that is compatible with peoples’ other obligations, like childcare. Look into other possible accommodations that might be necessary, such as closed captioning or translation. In some ways, virtual meetings can amplify existing disability and accessibility inequities even more so than in-person events. The Allied Media Conference does a great job of explaining what exactly it means to be accessible in their How To Virtual AMC guide, which includes a commitment to avoid ableist and other harmful language (as defined by this open-sourced dictionary) plus links to tech resources that can help you include everyone.
  • Create an invitation for the meeting. Even if it’s casual, setting up a place where folks can find all the information they need prevents last minute scrambling for a link. You can do this via email, or in the form of a calendar invite. In addition to setting a start time, set an end time as well (even if it’s a guess) so that people can plan around it.
  • Tell people what to expect. Share an agenda if you have it, give folks a heads up if they need to do any work in advance or bring anything specific (a certain mindset, like having an open mind, counts!). Even if it’s a social gathering, like a birthday celebration, saying something like “we’re going to meet for about an hour and there will be a chance for you to share a favorite memory you have of the birthday person” can help people prepare – which is especially useful for those of us who experience social anxiety.

The Second Biggest Doll: Opening the meeting (the first 10 minutes)

Now that everyone has arrived, it’s time to set the tone.

  • Welcome everyone to the space! This is your chance to warm the Zoom, right off the bat. There are tons of ways to do this. You can share your sound and have a song playing, ask folks to answer a question in the chat as they tune in, or rename themselves with their location and pronouns and/or a fun prompt like a street name that is meaningful or a fictional character that inspires them. It’s also really nice to welcome every person by name as they log on (depending on how many folks you have). Make sure to pause and acknowledge any latecomers, catching them up briefly on what’s going on so that they don’t feel left out.
  • Mark the beginning of the meeting. I generally allow a little wiggle room for folks to settle in and join, but after a few minutes, it’s time to make the start official. I’ve developed the ritual of taking a minute of silence, inviting folks to close their eyes for the duration if they feel comfortable doing so. To me, this is a virtual version of the physical threshold we would have crossed to enter this room together if the meeting were taking place in real life. After the silence, I invite everyone to close any extra browser windows, turn their phones upside down if possible, and disable non-essential notifications for the duration of our time together.
  • Explain what’s going to happen. Give an overview of the agenda, even if it’s informal. This is also your initial opportunity to share any housekeeping items or logistical announcements (like people leaving early, coming late, or determining who has a hard stop).
  • Give a check-in prompt. This can be simple like “How are you feeling right now?” or more creative like “If you were a shape what would you be?” I usually put the question out there and then ask whoever is ready to give me a wave, then I have them kick it off and call on the next person, who will call on the next person, until everyone has had a turn. Getting a pulse from everyone about what they are bringing to this space helps me as a facilitator know what the room needs–– and it also helps people check their baggage at the door, encouraging them to be present.

The Third Biggest Doll: Structuring the discussion (the bulk of the meeting)

This is where you tell everyone how this meeting is going to work.

  • State the ground rules. Sometimes I spend a substantial amount of time collaboratively generating shared group agreements. Other times I simply share a list of basic guidelines, like in the photo below (inspired by the ones that the New York Peace Institute uses). Still other times, I keep it casual and just say a few things out loud like “mute yourself when you’re not talking, take a break if you need to, keep your camera on whenever possible, use the raise hand feature if you have a question.” The Allied Media Conference has a great example of community guidelines here.
  • Pick your discussion structure. You can toggle between these methods, or bring one of your own, but the most important thing is that people need to understand and respect the rules for when and how to participate in the meeting. Although it can feel awkward to be explicit and static (as opposed to chill and dynamic) when it comes to group discussion, the clarity of expectations that it brings is incredibly valuable. For one, it reduces awkward lag time between speakers (a subtle friction that becomes exhausting over time). Most importantly though, putting a framework in place levels the playing field in terms of inherently unequal ways in which people of different identities feel entitled to speak, or completely silenced in group settings. Here are three options for structures you can use:

→ Paste a Talking Order into the chat that is a random list of all participants’ names. Flip the order halfway through the meeting so that people have a chance to experience a different place in line. IMPORTANT: Let people know that they can always pass if they aren’t ready to share. If they pass, you will return to them once the order is complete to see if they have come up with something to share at which point they can share, or pass completely and opt out of answering that question altogether.

→ Use the Raise Hand feature on Zoom, or the Stack method to create a queue of people who want to contribute and call on them one by one, in the order in which they indicated their desire to speak.

→ Ask a volunteer to go first and have them call on the next person to speak, who calls on the next person, and so forth. This can be a nice way to generate movement and connections between the group. Plus, it requires that everyone pay close attention, since they don’t know exactly when their turn will come.

The Almost Smallest Doll: Closing the meeting (the last 10 mins)

One of the ways to protect the space you’ve been so intentional about building is to have people leave as thoughtfully as you helped them arrive.

  • Give a Check-out prompt. The check-out prompt is your signal to the group that it’s time to start winding down, and get ready to disengage from one another. You can go with a quick, simple one like “what is one word to describe how you are feeling right now?” or a more practical one such as “what’s something you are taking away from this discussion?”. Depending on the type of meeting and the rapport that exists in the group, my favorite check-out prompt is to ask people to share something they appreciate about someone else in the group (allowing each person to receive only one appreciation, and continuing the exercise until everyone has been appreciated).
  • Cover any logistics. Priya Parker, an inspired facilitator and acclaimed author, gives the sound advice that you should never begin or end a meeting with logistics. I take this to heart and sandwich any logistical announcements or points of order between exercises. This moment of housekeeping could be where you remind people when the next meeting is taking place, review action items, or give out directions to the after party.
  • Deliver a closing statement. People remember how an experience made them feel more than they remember anything else about it. The final moments of the meeting are your chance to send everyone off into the world holding a big idea, or a sense of accomplishment. Sometimes I will keep this simple and just express gratitude for everyone showing up. Other times I share a quote that is evocative and connects our meeting to something bigger.

The Smallest Doll: Taking care of each person in the room (throughout the meeting)

This last doll doesn’t hold any others. It’s the centerpiece and it is here to remind you of your most important job of all: to ensure that everyone in the room feels seen, heard and respected. All four containers, each one slightly smaller than the last, are built to protect and contain the smallest one, the tiny precious nugget at the center — the people in attendance.

image from TreasureLA

Using the nesting doll approach has completely transformed my meetings. I’ve applied it to all sorts of gatherings, from a 30-minute family gathering for my stepmom’s birthday, to a 3-hour annual Board Meeting for a workers cooperative. Being intentional about the setup, opening and closing makes the space feel sacred. Structured discussion time helps people feel comfortable and encouraged to share. And most importantly, people leave these meetings feeling connected and energized, as opposed to drained and disengaged.

Want to learn more about this kind of stuff? I run a company called Business Casual, where I work with organizations to help navigate the really sticky, human parts of work that are hard to wrap your head around — stuff like navigating conflict, giving feedback, learning from tough situations and talking openly about things that are hard to say out loud. Get in touch at hello@thisisbusinesscasual.com or sign up for my newsletter. (See what I did here with the logistics?)

In closing this piece, I want to thank you for reading. I know there are lots of things competing for your attention and I appreciate you giving some of it to me today. I’d like to send you off into the world with this quote, from Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer:

“Ceremony focuses attention so that attention becomes intention. If you stand together and profess a thing before your community, it holds you accountable. Ceremonies transcend the boundaries of the individual and resonate beyond the human realm. These acts of reverence are powerfully pragmatic. These are ceremonies that magnify life.”

Founder of Business Casual, MS in Change Management from The New School, formerly @Etsy http://thisisbusinesscasual.com/