Facilitating consensus in Virtual Meetings


a short guide

Meetings can be quite challenging - and if you're not all in the same place they can be harder still. If you can't see each other or the facilitator you'll be missing out on the non­-verbal cues you'd normally be able to pick up through body language. This makes it harder to build trust and respect in the group. To make such meetings work everyone needs to work harder to express themselves clearly, and to understand each other.

Why have virtual meetings?

For most of us the easiest way to discuss and decide on an issue is when we're in the same place, and are all able to see and hear each other. But this isn't always possible: perhaps someone is working away from home but still wants to be involved, or your group might be made up of people from different countries. Perhaps you're sharing a project with another group that isn't based locally. If you still want everyone to be able to participate in your decision-­making then you'll need to find a way to communicate with each other - we're calling this a virtual meeting.

In this guide we'll explore some options for making decisions online and using the phone. We've included some pros and cons of the various options, and suggested a process for reaching consensus remotely.

The tools for the job

Before we talk about how to facilitate virtual meetings we'll take a short look at what communications media are available. Lots of the tools you can use to hold virtual meetings are based on the internet. We've tried to talk about these tools in a general way, because technology and software changes so quickly that what we write here will soon be out of date (but we've included some examples since most people know the name of the software they use, rather than the type of communication it is).

Real time or non-real time?

Real time communications happen when you and somebody else can immediately respond to what is being said, so the flow of conversation is faster.

But if you have to wait for a response, then this is called non-real time. Although it's generally not as convenient to communicate in non- real time, it can allow people more time to think, or for them to contribute at a more fitting time.

Chat: real-­time text based messages over the internet, including IRC and Instant Messaging (IM). MSN, IRC, AIM, Pidgin
Collaborative real-­time editors: software that allows more than one user to simultaneously edit a document. Etherpad, Piratepad, Googledrive
Email: sending digital messages to recipients in non­-real time.
Microblogging: broadcasting short messages to others. Twitter, Identi.ca
Post/Mail: sending old fashioned letters through the postal service.
Telephone: whether mobile or landline, also radio (CB, VHF etc.).
Voice Messages: leaving a message on something like an answerphone,
or sending voice recordings via the internet or post.
VOIP: strictly speaking part of the telephone service, but here we use it
to mean voice communications using computers rather than just telephones. Skype, Mumble, google Talk
Wiki: a website on which users can add, modify, or delete content using a web browser. we.riseup.net

Pros and cons of using these tools are discussed below.

Challenges of facilitating virtual meetings

Facilitation is about helping a group to have an efficient and inclusive meeting. Facilitating a virtual meeting is a bit more challenging than a meeting where everyone is physically present, but relevant tools and a bit of practice should make it easier.

Trust and understanding

When we phone, chat, email or collaborate on an online document it's very easy to lose sight of the fact that we're dealing with other humans. This is because we're missing out on most non­-verbal communication: some researchers conclude that 70% of communication between humans is non­-verbal (such as body language and tone of voice). Email doesn't allow us to express tones of voice or emotions, and telephones don't show us when people are frowning or smiling.

Virtual meetings are often easier when people have already met each other in real life - meeting up helps us get a picture of each other, helping us to trust, understand and respect each other better. Meeting up face to face at least occasionally can really help keep communications on a human level. You should also put some time aside to check on how everyone is feeling at the start of any meeting, so people have a chance to reconnect to each other.

Developing clear, shared aims in your group will help all participants to focus in meetings, as well as feel connected. Try to sort out common aims as soon as you can - this could be one thing you try to do as a group in one place, or failing that, use some of the collaborative software and internet sites to work together on them.

Preparation

As with any meeting, preparation really makes a difference. If people aren't meeting face to face it's probably even more important to think beforehand about what needs to be sorted out.

Whatever technology you're using for your meetings - whether it's the postal service or super complicated multi-­media collaboration software - it pays to have clear systems for your facilitation and decision making. As a facilitator, your first task will be to check the time scales for any decision making. If you're all going to be communicating in real time (such as on the phone) have you checked the times of the day that participants can or can't do - consider things like work, child­care, access to the internet and time zones.

If a meeting is to happen using non­-real time communication (such as email) set a schedule for each stage of the discussion, and make sure people know when they should reply by.

Has everyone got access to the hardware (computers, cameras, microphones) and software (internet browser, apps or programmes)?

At the same time as you're agreeing meeting times or time­scales, make sure that everyone has all the information they need to make the decision: are the agenda, minutes from previous meetings, information materials etc. available to everyone?

Facilitation styles

Facilitating virtual discussions in real time will often benefit from very clear facilitation - the kind that in a face-­to-­face meeting might feel over the top. Because we can't take visual cues from each other and the facilitator it's easy for people to talk over each other and go off on tangents. By explicitly explaining what they are doing, the facilitator can help the group to understand where the discussion is at and when they should speak or type.

Although in a 'normal' face­-to-­face meeting things like breaks, regular summaries and clarity about the process are important, when you can't see each other these things are perhaps even more important, but easier to forget about. So do:

A consensus process for virtual meetings

flowchart for reaching consensus in virtual meetings

Your group's structure

Before you set up elaborate systems for your virtual meetings think about how to minimise the amount of meeting time you'll need, for example it can be much harder to make decisions in virtual meetings with lots of people. If you can split up into working groups (e.g. publicity, venue organising, materials) then not everyone has to discuss everything. Instead only the few people in a particular working group will be meeting - helping to keep virtual meetings smaller and easier.

Pros and cons of different communications media

Real time spoken communication

VOIP, phone conferences – everyone 'present' at the meeting.

Pros and cons

  • Possibly feels the most 'natural' of all the communication tools.
  • Minutes need to be taken by a human.
  • Phone and internet access can be expensive.
  • Latency (time lag) and echoing can be off-­putting.

Tips and troubleshooting

  • Before starting the meeting remind participants not to put the call on hold if their phone has hold music or beeps.

Real time written (typed) communication

Chat - everyone 'present' at the meeting.

Pros and cons

  • Easy to use - quite a simple technology.
  • People who can type faster tend to dominate the discussion

Collaborative editors
(whether or not used in real time)

Everyone 'present' at the meeting or participating when they have time.

Pros and cons

  • Most collaborative software includes a chat client - useful for instant feedback and to discuss wording.
  • Easy to save discussions, so no need to keep minutes.
  • Hard to watch out for quiet participants.

Non-real time written communication

Email, email lists, forums, wiki, blogging, text/SMS, post – no need for people to be 'present' at the meeting.

Pros and cons

  • Allows for a deeper debate since people have more time to think about their answers - there's more time to identify the best propos­als and ideas.
  • Leaves a record which is relatively easy to search through at a later stage.
  • The actual time each person is involved in the discussion can be shorter than in a face to face or internet chat type meeting.
  • Easy to exchange information (such as agendas and background info) and more complex thoughts.
  • People who have more time and access to the internet may dominate the flow of the discussion.
  • Decisions can take longer to reach because of high latency (delay between replies).
  • Easy for important and relevant bits to get lost in a sea of words - al­ though a facilitator can help with regular and clear summaries.

Tips and troubleshooting

  • Contributions can be sent to the facilitator who sends a digest on a regular basis. That way inboxes don't fill up so rapidly.
  • The facilitator can send out summary messages every so often, in­cluding summaries of the discussion and any proposals or decisions. This makes it easier for people to catch up if they've been away from the discussion or don't have much time.
  • The facilitator should set a deadline for replies, but first consider people's availability and access to the internet and ensure everyone will get a chance to participate in the discussion!
  • In order to keep things moving you may agree that if people don't respond to proposals by set deadlines then it will be assumed they are in agreement. For important decisions the facilitator should check in with everyone who hasn't explicitly responded to confirm agreement, stand asides or whether they just weren't able to get to a computer.

Case study: Virtual meetings in practice

The International Women's Peace Service (IWPS)

IWPS is an organisation that is run by volunteers coming from all around the world. Meetings and decisions are made over the internet and the phone. In this way the internet and the phone becomes the 'office' where thinking, discussions and decisions are made and implemented.

Most decisions are made by email; a new email thread with the information is sent out when anything comes up, asking for people's thoughts and reactions. The person who sends out the email facilitates the discussion until a decision is made.

When strategic or urgent core issues come up then a meeting is held. Meetings are held on real time written collaborative tools because of their user ­friendliness. Two people volunteer to facilitate and take minutes. Those who cannot attend the meeting email their views in advance to the rest of the group.

If the meeting takes too long, the issue is passed back to the relevant working group who continue discussing through email until a proposal is reached.

Since volunteers come from different continents, finding a time that works for everyone proves to be tricky. Using non­-real time tools allows everyone the flexibility to take in information and respond to it in their own good time. In cases of emergency or people not having regular internet access the facilitator uses the phone to get feedback and passes that on to the rest of the group by email.

All decisions made are saved onto a wiki which serves as a filing system, including policies that were agreed upon and how­to documents that explain the decision process and facilitation, facilitation tools and communication tools used.

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