Core facilitation skills apply to both face-to-face and virtual participants and meetings.  With teleconference or videopresence meetings, the session leader must speak clearly, provide active listening (especially feedback and confirmation), ask appropriate questions, manage time constraints and personality issues, etc.  Our discussion that follows below and in the previous/ next  blog, focus on what is different with virtual meetings.

Purpose of Virtual Participants and Meetings

Same time access across multiple locations require may require distributed or electronic meetings, with known challenges called virtual meetings and participants.  With the use of supplemental tools, virtual meetings can also satisfy the dual condition that demands meetings at different times and in different locations.

Virtual meetings are used to save travel money or allow for remote participation.  While fine for review and sharing, they should be avoided at kickoffs, phase gate reviews, when consensus is critical, the issues are contentious, or the situation demands high-quality decision-making.

Method of Virtual Participants and Meetings

The following suggestions summarize and offer up the differences between face-to-face versus distance meetings.  Remember that active listening is always critical to effective facilitation and it is very tough to provide feedback and obtain solid confirmation without eye contact and observations around the room.

Proper Launch of Virtual Participants and Meetings

Getting and keeping people involved and productive will take a concerted effort on your part from start to finish.  Most importantly, get off to a good start by setting a good example:

  • As the facilitator, login first and early.
  • If possible, provide an electronic sign-in sheet that participants must update if they need to leave the meeting (even if only for a short period of time).
  • Greet each person as they come online and assign a ROLL CALL sequence for sound-off (eg, someone drops off  and you hear the ‘three beeps’).
  • Introduce each arrival to subsequent arrivals.
  • Establish and enforce protocol of announcing name (could be nickname) when taking a turn speaking. Last name only serves as a solid protocol. No verbs or prepositions are required.
  • Provide ground rules and roles as appropriate.
  • Constantly remind participants where you are in the process.
  • Provide a clear end and smooth transition for each step in the agenda as you make progress.

Primary Differences of Virtual Participants and Meetings Contrasted with Face to Face Meetings

Use your intuition.  Since you cannot rely on non-verbal feedback (unless using high-resolution video), be firm but flexible.

  • Use people’s names to get their attention.
  • Break-up long stretches of one speaker.
  • When appropriate, go “around to circle” for inclusive participation.  Use the roll call sequence built earlier.
  • Consider “break-out sessions” where two or more get off the main call, call each other(s), and then get back on the session bridge to share their results.
  • For decision-making processes, restate or repeat key issues while they refine to a decision point.
  • When possible, use internet-based collaboration tools to create shared electronic notes, flip charts, Mimio, etc. When appropriate allow “side chats” and “ breakouts” to accelerate participant contributions.


While also true with face-to-face meetings, the likelihood of engaging multiple cultures increases with virtual meetings and participants.  Therefore be reminded and reinforced about the “Deadliest Sins of International Misunderstanding” (see “Do’s and Taboos Around the World”).

  • Grammar—remember to facilitate and to stop processing the content.  Someone needs to be listening and that is the role of the facilitator.  Generously paraphrase if necessary to ensure that all participants capture meaning from their perspective.  Document and distribute your notes quickly after meetings to solicit corrections.  Accept the blame for any misunderstandings.  Never interrupt; rather, use active listening to correct for imprecise word or grammar choices.
  • Jargon—likened to a tongue without a brain, avoid “interface” in favor of “work together.”  Police carefully, such as “shotgun approach” and “on the same wave length.”
  • Local color—from idioms to accents, people need to slow down their rate of speech, enunciate clearly, and project a bit louder.  Everyone should avoid local idioms such as “Don’t make waves.”
  • Officialese—your particular concern here ought be acronyms or what many people call acronyms (technically, an acronym needs to spell an actual word).  Even basic English abbreviations may not be understood by everyone, such as “P & L.”  Groups are never too clear, so be certain to use active listening to provide a fuller, clearer reflection of what is being stated.
  • Slang—in Islamic and Buddhist cultures, a simple “thank God” may be considered blasphemous unless meant piously.  Avoid even simple comments that lack clarity such as “go for it”.
  • Vocabulary—don’t forget after providing reflection to confirm that everyone seemingly understands what has been stated.  If you sense that someone is holding back, consider a roll call approach to have each person interpret how the new content affects them.

Capture the Work of Virtual Participants and Meetings

With the few exceptions noted, most of the FAST technique is immediately transferrable to the virtual world.  Some additional differences in the video-presence mode include:

  • Before bio-breaks, insert a quick “Plus/ Delta” and ask for immediate feedback.
  • Enforce “Silence or Absence is Agreement” but solicit one-by-one responses for highly critical decisions.
  • If you don’t want to ask each person to respond to a general query (“do you understand the new procedure?”), ask questions so that silence implies consent, and remind them to speak up if “they can’t sleep at night” with the outcome.
  • The larger the group, the more your session leadership skills need to keep people from dominating each virtual meetings

Also See:

How to Facilitate Virtual Meetings and Participants (Part 1 of 3)

How to Facilitate Virtual Meetings and Participants (Part 3 of 3)

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Facilitation Expert

Terrence Metz, CSM, CSPF, is the Managing Director of MG RUSH Facilitation Training and Coaching, the acknowledged leader in structured facilitation training. His FAST Monthly Facilitation blog features over 300 articles on facilitation skills and tools aimed at helping others lead faster, more productive meetings and workshops that yield higher quality decisions. His clients include Agilists, Scrum teams, program and project managers, senior officers, and the business analyst community among numerous private and public companies and global corporations. As an undergraduate of Northwestern University (Evanston, IL) and MBA graduate from NWU’s Kellogg School of Management, his professional experience has focused on process improvement and product development. He continually aspires to make it easier for others to succeed.

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