Being human while teaching and facilitating online with Ben Faranda

This is another podcast in our series on live online teaching and facilitation. In this podcast Robin and Ben Faranda explore what is safe online and what it means to be human in online sessions. Ben is an experienced face-to-face and online facilitator who has worked with some of the biggest tech companies in the world.  Robin and Ben talk about what safety means online and then move into talking about strategies which can be used to help with building safety online. The conversation then goes into what it means to be human online.

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Being human while teaching and facilitating online with Ben Faranda

Robin: Ben, constructing a safety environment for your participants is really important for you and your virtual facilitation. What do you mean by the word safety?

Ben: Yes, thanks for addressing that. Safety in every respect is connected to psychological safety and maybe that's more of a mouthful. But ideally we're creating spaces where people feel included and activated to speak the truth. Not if truth is offensive or unnecessarily provocative but ideally and I know I've mentioned that word a couple of times, we give people the option to join based on their own speed. And in a virtual world where we can't necessarily address facial gestures and other non-verbal cues and using that sensory acuity, I might get a feel that maybe where we're moving into a topic area that's loaded or has some connotation for some people that would activate their fear centre and put them into a threat state.

Very much safety in the online world and in terms of virtual facilitation, is allowing people for example, just to tell me, ‘Hey Ben, you’re speaking too quickly, I didn't catch that.’ And it could be as benign as that, where it's not necessarily connected to a fearful thing for them. However, in various learning contexts that will maybe be a place for people to feel a sense of hierarchy, that as the facilitator they wouldn't dare question that or that maybe they don't have permission to see me as a peer but rather someone who's leading something. And even though that's never my desire, that could be the manifestation of their cultural upbringing or something which is referenceable to them.

And so in every respect when I'm thinking about the word safety and psychological safety for my learners and the people that I work with, it's really to contract with them early to create those moments of permission where it's established very early on, for example to tell me to slow down or even repeat myself. That people also feel safe to be able to ask a question, even if they can maybe sense that it's got to somehow impair the continuity of what I'm talking about or where we were going in terms of a learning journey and an activity. When people have that established sense of safety they will feel more included, which I would hope means they're more in a reward state.

So they're more in the stage of curiosity and maybe exploration and attention and experimentation. As opposed to, "Oh, well all of this is maybe highbrow." Or, "This is too removed from what I do day to day." Or, "I can't connect this back to my work, so I'm not sure why I'm even here." And I'm not really thinking it's so different from a face-to-face kind of facilitation except that I don't have that opportunity to necessarily scan my learners for other cues, which would naturally include options for me to then switch gears mid-track. So that's really where I think safety is something that is a passion place for me because I would, of course, like to imagine that everyone who attends any learning which I'm a part of, feel it was relatable, at the least, inclusive. And that's why safety is so important to me.

Robin: You hinted a little bit at the fact that it's a lot easier to build safety and know where people are at in a face-to-face situation. You can read people and their subtle non-verbal cues. I really liked that sometimes you can read someone at the beginning of the session but as you move into different types of content, they might move into different types of spots. In face-to-face sessions you'd be able to see, feel and understand that. Online we lose our physical presence, our senses are cut down. It's a different experience. What are some of the strategies you use as a facilitator to build safety Ben?

Ben: I guess an extension on the theme of safety would be the more elementary things, such as using people's names and me being vulnerable enough to say, "I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly, please tell me if I'm not, I want to honour your name and if there's any way I can improve that, just let me know." It wouldn't be unusual to have people attend various training that I might be running who have a very unusual spelling for their name or phonetics I'm not used to.

And even though it might be a little bit laboured to point that out, it really, I think, fulfils two things; one is it shows I'm vulnerable and means I'm a human, not a boss or someone on the other end of the line. And that also means that ideally they feel safer to approach me and even correct me. I speak another couple of languages so I do have a fairly good handle on trying to use correct pronunciation. I'm not looking to build that social capital just because I've said someone's name properly.

However, imagine if I spent the entire 90 minutes or whatever we're together saying your name incorrectly and you hadn't corrected me the first or second time, it would impair your experience potentially. And even though it's such a kind of pointless thing to labour on, some people really feel it's important that you say their name correctly because maybe their whole life it was said incorrectly. They had this beautiful name that has been butchered and chopped and changed because people either couldn't say it, wouldn't say it or just read it and said it how it looked in terms of the letters of their name.

And that's just a really subtle example of something where I will use people's names to ensure I'm acknowledging they're human to begin with, not just a participant in a big list of names. And it would be one of the first places that I would apply sufficient vulnerability and personalization to ensure they know there's a human who cares about them on the other end or within that learning environment.

And so that would be one of the things. Another thing would be acknowledging that ...and probably relatable to, let's say the exotic spelling of a name, irrespective of where someone's been raised. Many people, especially in a country like Australia, one third of the country has been born in another country, which would naturally include people where English is not their first language.

Whilst I think that's really cool and I love the idea that people are learning in another language. And for example, my partner, she's from Brazil and she speaks English probably better than I do and has studied here, so I certainly would consider her an equal. By virtue of having an accent, she feels sometimes that she's overlooked or that somehow people will treat her slightly differently. Like she's not quite as intelligent or able to fully understand what they're saying. And whilst that's not desirable, it is a phenomena.

As a result of that, I'm very consciously connected to the notion that people who are transacting, whether that's learning or speaking or communicating in any form in a language other than their mother tongue, is again in my opinion, doing something very cool. And from a safety perspective it gives me the prerogative to really lean into that and honour that and say, "Hey, from time to time I get really excitable and I might say something really quickly or I might use slang or an idiom which is not familiar to you. Please, please call me out on that. tell me straight away, because I would be so sad if we got to the end and you'd miss even 10% of it because I'd kind of belted through it or I'd used any kind of terminologies which are unfamiliar to you."

And that could even be business language, it doesn't necessarily have to be based on the languages we speak. It could be the vernacular of an industry or the TLA’s, as we love to call three letter acronyms. Any kind of thing which belongs in a glossary is also another place to allow people to feel safe to say, "I'm not quite sure what you meant by the ATU." And if I'm giving them permission from the very beginning and throughout that facilitation, just peppering in those reminders saying, "Hey, again folks, please ask me if there's anything that is not familiar to you." I believe that's another activation of possibility for them to feel safe to ask and for...well for me to be able to help them course correct in case there was something missed very early on.

Finally I think it's really important from a safety perspective to be really transparent. And if I'm not the subject matter expert of a domain but I'm facilitating let's say a workshop. Which learning objectives are also implied but there's no specific concept, I'm hoping they'll master as much as a felt experience or something that they're doing collectively and they walk away with their ah-has and their takeaways because they've been able to do that experience in a shared manner.

It would also be to ensure that I've got diversity in, say breakout groups, where I'm very deliberate to make sure that there's mixtures in terms of gender but also in terms of maybe culture and even organisation. Maybe you're working in finance and this other person's working in HR and this other person's working in sales. And where possible contriving and even constructing breakout groups which kind of forces diversity. That would be another tip I would say or a hot tip. If you have that option, if that data is available to you prior to the facilitation that you have it available to you. They're things that I think are kind of the low hanging fruit, the quick wins.

Robin: Yes, quick wins is a really nice way of thinking about it. It's a thing when people join a session, greeting them by name, being open, chatting in a casual way, just gives a different level of warmth. I really like that idea of turning up as a human. I quite often think that with online facilitation, you really need to design your questions more. Because people are less likely to actually ask questions. A facilitator needs to pause more often, checking in with people. Because people are less likely to interrupt you with questions. Questions from participants face-to-face sessions are often powerful moments. So you partly set up that situation where people feel sort of comfortable to question you. Ben, you even just have a really nice pacing in your voice. It’s like because you’re speaking slowly, people will feel more able to interrupt you as well.

Ben: I hope so. I hope so. That's, for sure, the intent.

Robin: A lot of facilitators think about safety in a quite mechanical way. "Let's do an icebreaker at the beginning. Let's make everyone share something." It starts to build some social cohesion. Part of what I think when you start to talk about it, it really struck me there was more of a mindset as a facilitator rather than a technique. Yes, what's your thoughts on icebreakers?

Ben: I'm kind of more of a fan of check-ins actually. I think it's really nice to meet the human as opposed to the talking resume. And I don't mean that in a critical sense but so often we're asked to introduce ourselves by name, titles, some kind of experience or pedigree. It's almost like a LinkedIn introduction.

And I don't necessarily find that productive or helpful because I think that for some people it will be a trigger where they won't feel safe because maybe they feel outnumbered by smarter people or more successful people or they benchmark themselves very quickly and think, "Oh gosh, I'm surrounded by giants and I couldn't necessarily level up to that." And the inverse is true too. There could be people who are there thinking, "Oh, I was expecting something better. Or to be with a group of people of my ilk." Or whatever there is going through their mind.

It's an assumption of course but the preference for me with regard to icebreakers or introductions is a check-in. And that's founded in science now that we know from...well, we know that there's plenty of literature that reveals the notion that the more we bear a little of our soul, the more we can build trust quickly. So if we are going to build that social cohesion, I don't see harm in leveraging some of Brené Brown's work and other thought leaders in the field who really impress upon us the notion that it's okay to bring your human to work.

In the seminal work of Daniel Kahneman and some other really high end thought leaders in fields of psychology and positive psychology especially, it's really in my estimation and specifically my experience of this with numerous companies all over the planet, both face-to-face and virtually, a check-in gives people a chance just to ground themselves. And so from the icebreaker perspective, if we're going to build psychological safety, I'm not just wanting to meet Robin, I'm wanting Robin to also feel permission to tell me if there's something that might be distracting him. And it could be, "Oh, I've got a child who hasn't slept. So apologies if I have to go missing in action a couple of minutes but that's just all that's happening."

Of course there's a line between safety and comfort and I guess I'd like to address it by this. If any kind of ice breaker is giving people the opportunity to maybe test their comfort levels by maybe speaking truthfully to their context, "I'm living in a shared home and there's chaotic noise around me." Or "My Internet's been a bit wonky, so if I have to join by phone and I jump in and out a bit, I'm sorry." That relaxes people's judgement of that person. We're more likely to empathise. We're more likely to go to a place of inquiry. And if we are, I hope good people, we would probably go to a place of compassion, care, concern and make those allowances.

The other frame with just safety would be, "Well I don't want to overshare. I don't want to have to tell you about my relationship breakdown or some other cathartic experience." I don't feel that is necessarily what people have to do to be vulnerable. But in an icebreaker sense, wouldn't it be nicer to know that I've met Robin who tells me, "Hey Ben, it's been a really difficult week because they've been working overnights for a US company. So if you hear me yawn, it's not because you're boring. It's truly because I'm kind of exhausted but I'm so excited to be here."

We're far more likely to go to a place of humanity. And that is going to...and I know I use this word a lot but that will ideally create an environment where people feel safe, they feel connected and there's a kind of...well there's not a kind of, there is an opportunity for people to feel empathy very quickly. Versus the, as I said, the talking LinkedIn introduction, I find that a bit stale and a little bit a bit forced, frankly.

Robin: Actually, as a participant, I always freak out with those. I really do not like them. I try to avoid using them as a facilitator. I really like this idea of the warm up being a check-in about where people are at. Especially if you're working with a group of people over a period of time as well.

When I was thinking about this recently, I realised in some of our longer programmes I start them always the same way with the question "What have you learned since the last time we caught up?"

It's actually a chance for people to sit there and go, "Robin the project's gone, pear shaped. I haven't been able to do anything." It does build empathy. It's partially project check-in, learning, reflection. It's also an emotional check-in for the group as well.

Ben: Spot on.

Robin: One thought that I have is, "Am I boring people by doing the same thing every time?" But at the same time I'm making sure people know what to expect at the start of the sessions is probably the best way to put it.

Ben: I can convey through an anecdote. Well, it's anecdotal, it's also newsworthy. Many years ago there was a terrible plane crash involving an airliner and multiple casualties. So very sad all around. And in the investigation, which was always done, it was based in Japan actually, the pilot had hit a mountain or something really catastrophic.

When they retrieved the black box recorder and of course the scientists and the accident investigators were trying to understand what happened. The junior pilot felt absolutely terrified to...and I don't know quite how they picked this up but he was completely reluctant to tell the captain, "Hey captain, we're heading for a mountain." Or something but it was probably ... it would have been a bit more than that. And the notion or the kind of the big learning was we check for competency but we don't necessarily check for emotional competency.

And if someone's experiencing something which is really quite difficult for them in the moment and it doesn't have to be traumatic, it could just be tiring. It could be they're exhausted because this is, "Oh, my ageing parent who's living in Melbourne and I'm living in Queensland and I can't get to them because of this shutdown with COVID-19 or whatever it is and that's playing on my mind."

The minute I share that with you and release that to you, you may also be experiencing the same thing, which either means, "Oh great, we've got something in common." Or alternatively you might be, "Well I'm going to be really light on Ben, because I don't want him to feel that sense of stress or dread when I'm asking him to do something and he's slower to respond." I'm less likely to make judgements about your unwillingness maybe to participate or a kind of a laboured sense of participation. My trigger's going to be less and ideally yours will. So I just wanted to close the loop on that and talk through that.

Robin: I just trying to form another question, I just realised how dumb the question was, I was about to sit there and say, "What's some more strategies to set up to be human?" Then I realised "Ah, that's one of the worst questions on the face of the Earth."

Turning up as a human isn’t a strategy, it depends on the facilitator and what emotional check-ins and safety means for group changes as well.

Ben: Yes and so just...may I just build on that very quickly to add, I also believe there's a necessity for us to convey that people are in by choice, there's no expectation put upon them. So I could say we're doing a check-in and someone is very reluctant. I remember actually last year I was running a training face-to-face in Finland with a very large shipping company and they're a really gregarious bunch of people. And it was really fun. We spent the day talking about time and stress management and our habits, looking at phones and unconscious behaviours, all this stuff.

I noticed by the end of the day I had this participant who was really far less willing to kind of jump in. And I guess, my hunch was this person was painfully shy. And I wasn't being judgemental but that it was...that was what my inner dialogue was telling me. This person's shy so don't make them feel uncomfortable, don't ask them to do things that would make them feel unsafe. And so I kind of left it there and it was just really delicate with this person.

Anyway, at the end of the day, everyone was. ..we were in Finland and they're, "We're going to go and have a sauna. Do you want to come?" It's now I feel unsafe. You haven't seen me undressed. But the jokey part of it is, this young woman came up to me and she said, "I just want to apologise that I've been so kind of distant today." And I said, "Oh, I'm not really sure that you were distant, I understand maybe you were preoccupied but that's fine. You're completely fine." And I was just so touched. She said, "I'm sorry, someone very close to me died yesterday and I still haven't processed it."

I was just thinking, how many times are we with another human who's experiencing something that could be tremendously difficult for them but there they are, dutiful, they've turned up, they're willing to carry the load with the others. And how quickly I could have gone to a place of judgement and assumption and made those kind of ruthless assessments of her and her intention. And because I hadn't and I clearly...I guess the reason I'm sharing this anecdote is not to make myself sound good but just to kind of reinforce the point that when we create psychological safety, she even felt safe enough to come and tell me at the end of the day. That she didn't just leave and I never heard again, that I felt it's an indicator.

If we're ever going to look for, how do we understand whether we're being human enough and we're creating safety? It's when people maybe feel safe enough to explain a situation for themselves. Again, within boundaries. I don't need to know that. I'm not asking anyone to tell me about that kind of pain or trauma but if they do or if they tell me, "Hey Ben, I'm just going through a tough time." Then that's enough for me. I definitely don't want a probe, I don't want to make them feel uncomfortable. But that would indicate to me that my job is done, that they have felt sufficiently safe, that they could even come and tell me that in a quiet moment.

It was just a kind of reassurance. I suppose that it is possible. Even in an online environment, maybe I'm not going to get that level of intimacy where someone will tell me something so specific but maybe if through my behaviours, my actions and the behaviours of others they're noticing we are caring for one another in the very fragmented, interesting way it's done virtually, that again, our job is done. I think we created a thoroughly different learning experience rather than a learning per say of just turning up to somewhere, they go away and they can describe the feeling they've had of being there rather than just what they learned.

Robin: It's important online not to lose that sense of connection to people. And that's a lovely example by the way, in terms of the fact that, imagine if you'd actually sort of called on her at the wrong particular moment, how that would've been a really different experience for her as well though that day.

Ben: Yes, absolutely.

Robin: Lots of people at the moment are starting with online facilitation. What would be your best advice to someone who's either starting or wanting to get better at really building an environment that feels safer for people.

Ben: I suppose it's to address your own sense of loss maybe. Because there's...for people who've been training, facilitating, whatever people want to call it, for many years. I suppose one of the intangible benefits is the feeling you get as a facilitator when people are appreciative. You might walk away and go, "Wow, I really nailed that and really gave people a great experience. And there's a bit of ego in it and I don't mean that in a terrible way but there is a kind of poorly paid actor, entertainer, in all of us as facilitators, in my estimation. That's just my opinion.

However and again, not criticising any individual, just acknowledging being vulnerable. I think there was a...certainly early in my career, I played very much to the audience. I wanted that kind of approval, appreciation and acknowledgement. Not so much anymore or not for those reasons anyway, I'd rather people say, "I had an amazing experience". Great. They don't remember my name, that's absolutely fine. The experience is all I want them to leave with, that's fine.

So I think it's to really address what your intentions are. That if you're just doing it because it's a job and "Oh dammit, I have to switch gears now from going from face-to-face to online." That you acknowledge there'll be a sense of loss. You won't necessarily get the same feeling as a facilitator that you may have when people would stand and clap at the end of your training or do something else, which really gave you that sense of, "Yeah, there's my sugar hit. That's what I did it for." Hopefully, not that superficial but I think you know that there's a tapestry of things that we're looking for as facilitators.

Once you acknowledge that loss is to then really think about...and this is my big bet, is what is the learning experience you want to create? So I think there's an opportunity for all of us to explore that if I'm just doing this as a training per se and that I need them to leave with these learning objectives, well I could probably do that and be fairly transactional and fairly efficient at doing that, which is just conveyance of information, "Here you go, you've got that? Great. Oh, test it. Yeah. Oh, wonderful. We're done here."

Versus people saying, "Oh my gosh, I'm based in Tel Aviv and this other person is based in Rio de Janeiro and I had no idea we had so much in common that we're going through the same thing in the same company but in such vastly different geographies." And if they leave with that sense of community that they're with people who are going maybe through the same thing at the same time, experiencing the same highs and lows or whatever it is that that other person is within that company in that context, I think that's just extraordinary because now we're broadening with scaling what we can do as facilitators.

Where we can scale and bring people closer together in a communal and empathic and emotional sense than we ever have before and even in an intellectual one. And so I think that the golden advice here would be leave your ego at the door. You're not going to get the same feedback you do in a face-to-face training. At the same time, if you really dial into your intention about the experiences you want to create and you are as personable and lovely and inclusive as you can be, I really think it can change the game. Where you can go from a place of fairly transactional, to camera off, never use someone's name, just belt through the slides, get through the content, ask the right questions, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. Then you're going to leave feeling empty and so are they.

And so I think the mindset needs to be, what can I do? What can Ben do, what's my responsibility? How do I make choices which make people feel activated, engaged, enthusiastic and encouraged. And yes, there still may be this kind of missing ingredient of that high touch environment in a face-to-face. Yet we can scale something, particularly a global organisation or a global cohort of people that I believe transcends boundaries geographically and that excites me. That really gets me passionate and I feel really connected to the notion of building community with people which transcends the transactional nature we so often would maybe attribute to an online training. It's probably a lot in that Robin, not one specific piece of advice.

Robin: That's a really, really lovely sentiment and set of thoughts inside. So it’s actually, not just one thought but there's lots of nice thoughts within that. Especially, particularly the moment about connecting and community. You've been running some online facilitation training courses. Tell me more about those.

Ben: So a few years ago I was engaged by a large tech company to certify in virtual training because that was their remit. A big European company and they're, "Hey, you just have to do this, okay?" So I did it. Maybe begrudgingly even, I'll just be truthful with you, what I was able to learn from it actually took me, I think from that notion of good to great.

And I'm not saying it was that I had no skills before and this gave me everything I needed. I probably took away 10% of what they talked about and it did, absolutely, move the needle in terms of my feeling and the performance. I've been doing this for a number of years and I decided moving back to Australia was an opportunity also, especially now with lockdowns and people doing more and more learning interventions online than ever, probably completely at the moment.


That I would create a small venture with a couple of other people who are very experienced in learning and have a university, they have a college and a couple of other things. So we've set up a thing called the Virtual Learning Institute. I'll be running workshops, which is really just taking people from a place of maybe unfamiliarity to a place of comfort in terms of being able to do the things that I've spoken about today. Which is using people's names, we call it ‘body language in the bandwidth.’ Using the tool or using the platform that you're learning on, irrespective of what that is. I know there's a tonne of different options but Zoom is one of these things that keeps getting brought up lately. And using that tool to do those checkpoints. Just to kind of feel the temperature, metaphorically.

And so it's a three hour course. We're running it over two weeks, so it'll be in two 90 minute sessions. Enough materials to really make you run ready. So if you're unfamiliar with training and teaching online, whether you're a teacher at a school or you're a facilitator or trainer, whatever you want to call yourself, that the course really gets you enough breadth to be able to understand the differences between synchronous and asynchronous learning; meaning live learning, where you're doing it in a group of people or recorded learning, which is asynchronous.

And how you can mix the two up. You don't just have to make it a three hour lecture. You could make it a one hour recorded information dump so to speak, where you're teaching someone the inner workings of an accounting formula or mechanical engineering or whatever it is. But then the two hours you do afterwards, it's much more like a tutorial at university but it's more work-shoppable so everyone's levelled up.

They've all got the same information to go into that because they understand the concept, because you've standardised that approach. But the other part of it is the human touch. And so that's the intent, that you'll come away from that three hours with a degree of competency and flexibility that would ideally take you from a place of good to great. Maybe not zero to hero but zero to very close to hero because you'll definitely feel more confident and more mindful about the ways you can use the technology and also adjust your approach and style to make learning more interesting and more engaging for your learners.

Robin: I'll make sure there's a link to the Virtual Learning Institute in the show notes and the blog post that goes along with this podcast as well.