How to build community through virtual conversations

Colleen Butler
May 22, 2020 · 4 min read

If you had asked me in January if I thought it would work to have meaningful 90 minute conversations… between small groups of people… who may or may or not know each other on a fully virtual platform, I would have said: “Um, no.” Having trained hundreds of facilitators over the last dozen years to host conversations for people sitting around a table together, my bias toward in-person conversation ran deep.

However, necessity is the mother of invention, and our need for human connection and belonging in a time of anxiety and ambiguity are clear. We at Local Voices Network (LVN) have already had twice as many conversations this year than we did in all of 2019! After the first month sheltering at home, people and organizations in our network started deciding to give these virtual conversations a try, and the conversations have been just as meaningful, impactful, and connecting as the in-person conversations.

For an example of the type of vulnerability and sharing that is coming out of these conversations, listen to Tony, from Birmingham, AL, who works with people who are homeless, testing for HIV and STIs.

So, what’s our special sauce?

Well, mostly it’s the people who participate that make it work. People like you.

Here are some time-tested ingredients to fostering a healthy conversation and community online:

  1. At LVN, we always lead with values. Leading with values is informed by a restorative justice circle model. Establishing common or shared values for your conversation grounds you in a shared constructive purpose. We use a circle model for our virtual conversations to set the tone for healthy conversations that build community online. Circle practices that have translated well to an online platform include: leading with values and guidelines, incorporating a relationship building question, and identifying an order for participants to share.
  2. Share your story. It is much more difficult to argue with someone’s personal story or experience than it is to argue with a specific opinion or perspective. If we focus on sharing and listening to each other’s stories, we will better connect across differences and increase empathy. As a facilitator, ask questions that build understanding and help people tell their story. Some examples are: how did that impact you? How do you see that playing out in your neighborhood? Can you tell us more about why that was important to you?
  3. Engage discomfort. Most people are resistant to change to varying degrees. Not to mention the country and the world are in a state of particular flux. This means that we are almost all outside of our comfort zone to one degree or another. Engaging with discomfort allows us to learn, grow, and adapt in times of uncertainty. We have built a pause point into our conversations in which we invite all participants to take a breath together as a way to transition to a more open conversation and to remind us that when we are experiencing discomfort, we can always go back to our breath.
  4. Connect across communities. While our country sometimes feels very polarized, I’ve noticed that people share many of the same concerns and appreciations across the country. People are inspired by healthcare workers, worried about the economy and their employment, lifted up by the generosity in their communities — regardless of location. Taking the time to listen to these stories across communities allows us to build a sense of shared humanity and to decrease polarization. And don’t we all need more of that right now?
  5. Take care of yourself and your community. Lastly, give yourself and others grace. We are all experiencing stress at different levels — but this is unlike anything any of us have experienced before. Do what you can to acknowledge the shared grief and trauma in your community. Recognize that this is hitting some communities much harder than others. Offer yourself and others comfort in whatever way you can. Acknowledge that virtual conversation fatigue is real, but it can also be incredibly rewarding.

Want to learn more about holding space for virtual conversations and communities?

Join us Fridays at 11:00 CST/noon EST May 29th through June 26th to learn more about the LVN model of virtual facilitation. We will start with a general facilitator orientation on the 29th, and that will be followed by four webinars in June to take a deeper dive into each of the four principles of a LVN Conversation. Click here to learn more.

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