Elevating Virtual Gatherings with Proven Facilitation Tools
Successful virtual gatherings require more than just an invitee list and a video call link. As facilitators we’ve spent decades using tools that can really make a difference here. These tools are completely accessible to anyone who is planning to host any kind of gathering (whether it’s a work social, a team meeting, a retrospective, or a strategy session).
Check-ins encourage folks to show up authentically. A check-in gives everyone a chance to speak before getting to the heart of the gathering, helping them transition mentally and emotionally from their previous activity. It can also act as a primer for the level of engagement you'll want or need in the gathering.
Whether we are aware of it or not, and particularly at the start of relationships and events, we are all instinctively concerned with what others think of us. We ask unspoken questions like ‘Am I safe?’, ‘Am I included?’, and ‘Am I respected and valued?’.
A well designed check-in creates the psychological safety needed to have the best possible version of a conversation.
What should I ask?
There are tons of good questions that can help people make deeper connections with each other. You can use these questions as meeting-openers or make them part of a virtual coffee / lunch session. They are a great way to communicate to participants that their perspective matters.
Your choice of question will often contain some subtext - a somewhat hidden message to the group. For example, asking a question like ‘If you could give one piece of advice to our CEO, what would it be?’, might signal encouragement to dig into real issues that may not usually be discussed.
Prior to the question, you might also offer a bridging phrase that puts your check-in in context. For example, ‘The focus of our meeting today is to explore our shared passion for video games, so I thought we’d start with a check-in relating to that.’
When you decide to use a check-in, it’s a great idea to have a visual reference so people can remember the question as they answer it (whether they do so in the main space or in breakout conversations). For example, consider writing the question in the text chat or displaying it on their screen in some other way.
Check-in questions fall roughly into three categories...
Fun & Inconsequential (Favorite cereal?)
Personal & Connected (Which would you rather hear first, good news or bad news?)
Deep & Valuable (What kind of leadership qualities are most important to you?)
The right questions for the right people at the right time are at the heart of a healthy group process. DOROTHY STRACHAN
Here are some things to consider when choosing a check-in…
Group size: If it's a large group, you probably don't want to skew into personal questions unless the check-in will be done in breakout rooms. Sharing personal thoughts in a large meeting requires people to be more vulnerable than they would be in a smaller meeting.
Group familiarity: Is this a close knit team that works together day-to-day or a collection of folks who have only met once or twice? Are there any new people in the group? If familiarity is high, try some more challenging / provocative questions.
Duration: How long is the gathering scheduled for? Check-ins should generally be proportional to the duration of the gathering overall.
Purpose: How can the check-in connect with and support the central purpose of the gathering? What are you gathering for? Is it an important or contentious meeting? Is it a casual hang-out session? Think about the tone of the question(s) in connection with the meeting. Imagine you're having a meeting about an important legal matter. It would be pretty weird to use the breakfast cereal check-in here.
Here's a bank of questions in each conversation starter category for you to experiment with…
Fun & Inconsequential
What's your favorite afternoon snack?
Outside of work, what activity makes you lose track of time?
What's the last book or article you read that you really enjoyed?
What's your favorite kitchen tool or gadget?
If you could meet with anyone in the world - who would you choose and why?
Which song or musician are you listening to a lot right now?
If you had all the time and skills you needed to write a book, what would you write about?
What's one strange or amusing thing you used to believe as a child?
What's one TV show you think your whole team should watch? Why?
If your current mood was a song title, what would it be?
Personal & Connected
What recent team accomplishment brings you the most joy? Why?
How do you switch off at the end of the week?
What's one small moment of success you experienced recently?
Which meeting at work do you most enjoy and why?
What small things are you especially grateful for?
How do you handle changes to your daily routine?
Where do you find inspiration for your life and work?
What's something you've learned in the past month?
What's a part of your job you particularly enjoy?
What's your favorite charitable or non-profit organization? Why?
Deep & Valuable
How do you identify or notice the signals when you're stressed?
How do you like to receive feedback?
What would be helpful for your teammates to know about the way you communicate?
Is anything causing you stress right now - what is it?
Which leadership traits matter most to you?
What's a valuable piece of feedback you've received from a colleague?
What's one thing that most people don't know about you?
Think of a time when feedback felt like a gift. Why did it feel that way?
What's an area of your life in which you wish you were spending more time?
Describe a real-life situation where you stood up for someone or something
You may consider adding the words ‘And why?’ to the end of a question to get a little bit more depth from your participants. Just be aware that this will naturally extend the time needed for the check-in.
In some situations you might decide to give two or three check-in questions and invite each person to choose the one they will answer. Our experience is that one question keeps the group more focused and connected. That said, one scenario in which you might offer such a choice is when you send the group into breakouts. Since you won’t be there to facilitate, having the choice gives them a little more flexibility and comfort.
Retros & Reflections
As a bonus, here are a few extra questions that work well with team retrospectives and reflection style sessions...
What was the last team decision that felt like it took too long? Why did it take so long?
How do you think our organization can be more adaptable to change?
What's something you find challenging about working in this team or company?
A Speedy Check-in Option: Traffic Light🚦
Ask each person to share whether they are feeling red, orange or green in the current moment. It’s easy to do in the text chat or verbally, wherever you’re gathering. It's a great way to prepare everyone for the conversation…
Red means “I’m overwhelmed, stressed, upset or generally having a tough time.”
Orange means “Things aren't ideal but I’m coping.”
Green means “I’m feeling good about things.”
You can either simply have people share their color in the text chat or ask them for a sentence (verbally or otherwise) describing why they picked it. If you choose verbal sharing, as each person finishes, they should name the person who will go next.
It's important to recognize both that all feelings are valid and that this isn't a session to fix or address anyone's reds / oranges. That said, if someone signals red, it's a great idea to follow up with them afterwards to make sure they have the support they need.
Bringing awareness to team members' feelings in this way can help to neutralize negative feelings (by giving the feelings less power) and foster greater empathy amongst the team.
People disproportionately remember the last few minutes of a meeting so it’s a shame that so many meeting owners squander that focus with logistical comments about ‘the date for the next meeting’ and such like. Don’t fall into this trap. Instead, close with a little bit of ceremony, style and finesse by using a check-out.
Check-outs are a quick way of polling people for reflections on a session. They bring a sense of closure to the gathering and help people transition (mentally and emotionally) out of the conversation. A check-out might focus on what has occurred in the gathering or what is to come next for the group.
Our favorite check-out, which has the bonus of being very quick, is the one-word check-out. To make it a bit more fun, we like to use a virtual campfire.
To prepare, each person opens a campfire on their screen…
Where possible, participants are then invited to stand up.
One-by-one, they each name something they are grateful for or one word that summarizes how they feel about the gathering. Just remember that the goal is closing versus opening up. You might say “‘Please share one word that captures how you are feeling/what you are thinking as we close for today.”
At the same time they symbolically throw an imaginary log onto the fire.
Each person who completes a turn names the next contributor until everyone has had the opportunity to participate.
Building connections and relationships in groups is not difficult but it does require some up front thought. Hopefully this article has given you the what, why and how. Now it’s time to put check-ins and check-outs into action. 🙌
If you'd like to go one step further and fostering a greater sense of connection with your teams, we have a delightful and practical workshop called Create User Manuals. We'll help your team connect through play and structured conversation, delivering a tangible output.