Creating Community and Supporting Dialogues to Moving Online

by Anna M. Yeakley, PhD

I was inspired to experiment with facilitating intergroup dialogues online, using Zoom, in early 2019, out of a desire to expand the reach and accessibility of intergroup dialogue.  However, like most of my colleagues, all I had known up to that point was in-person dialogue facilitation. And, also like most, I had a hard time imagining how many of the features of intergroup dialogue could work in an online format.  Yet I was intrigued and excited by the question, “what if?” and I knew that the only way for me to find out what was possible was to try it out for myself, with a live group of participants.

I facilitated my first online dialogue in April 2019 with 10 professionals from around the country who were willing to commit to four online dialogue sessions with me as the participants. It was truly a “pilot” because it was my first test of the technology and I did not know what the experience would be like for the participants.  I Text in graphic form: Tip #1 Use Breakout Rooms in Zoom to help integrate dyad sharing & small group activitieslearned about the Breakout Room feature in Zoom, which allowed me to be able to integrate dyad sharing and small group activities into the dialogue experience, and it worked great!  

I was struck by how quickly the participants opened up and built a sense of connection and community with each other
from that first session. I experienced their dialogue as rich, meaningful, and critically reflective, in ways that expanded my own thinking. After seeing that I could successfully guide the group through each of the 4 stages of intergroup dialogue, I had the reassurance I needed that yes, intergroup dialogue can work online, and it can provide a powerful shared learning experience that also builds community.

Key Processes in the Dialogue Learning Experience

After a year of facilitating several online dialogue groups, I see that the processes that make up the heart of the dialogue learning experience:

Text Graphic that reads: Tip #2: Utilize Technology to its full potential*  Have everyone share video. Use headphones and external microphones to improve audio. *whenever possible

  • the self-reflection
  • listening to understand
  • developing empathy and perspective taking
  • supporting and challenging each other in examining our assumptions and biases
  • engaging the difficult questions and tensions around hot topics

can all take place online when there is a space created for sharing and listening to each other, and it is possible to feel the emotion and energy when someone speaks. As long as the participants can see each other’s facial expressions, hear each other’s voices, and reflect on the same types of questions that guide them to critically reflect on their experiences, assumptions, and biases, and expand their perspectives, their online dialogue experience can still feel very connected and very much like an in-person dialogue.  In my opinion, it is the strength of the intergroup dialogue model and the skill of the facilitators that really determine what is possible.

What supports community in in-person and online dialogues

Text Graphic that reads: Tip #3: Be Intentional with Container Building. Make time for: sharing hopes and fears, community agreements, vulnerability, personal sharingThere are also similar processes that support the development of a sense of community and connection in in-person and online dialogues.  When the facilitators can effectively create a container for honest and vulnerable sharing in the dialogue space--by going over hopes and fears, community agreements/aspirations, and modeling vulnerability and depth of personal sharing--the participants are more likely to also share in vulnerable ways,  be impacted by each other’s stories, feel their emotions, and start to build empathy and connections. 

Even though they are not in the same room, the participants can still see  and feel each other.  There is a lot that is communicated in the nonverbals of facial expressions, the tone and emotion in one’s voice, and the energy that can be felt when someone talks softly or loudly, with excitement or hesitation, or with joy or tension.  By practicing active listening, each participant is able to be moved and feel empathy for each other.  It is enough to feel connected and “in it together,” and it can create a strong sense of community in an online dialogue.

Tips for Moving Intergroup Dialogues Online

Starting in March 2020, I offered a series of Q&A Sessions on Zoom to offer support to those who were needing to figure out very quickly how they could transition their intergroup dialogues to online platforms in the wake of COVID-19.  These sessions were designed to answer the basic “how to” questions, provide a demonstration of some of the features of Zoom that could support the facilitation of intergroup dialogue, and also create a space for connecting and learning from each other that I called #DialogueStrong.  Through these ongoing weekly sessions, I tried to reassure those in attendance that yes, intergroup dialogue can still work and even be a rich and meaningful experience online, and also shared a number of Tips for Moving Intergroup Dialogues Online.   

Online Dialogue and Facilitation Training

Those interested in participating in an online dialogue can apply for the next online dialogue course starting on April 10 here.  The next 8-session online dialogue facilitation training course is scheduled to begin on May 22, and those interested in receiving updates and the registration link can contact Anna Yeakley through her website at or email her at [email protected]. I am also available for other support/coaching requests, and would welcome receiving updates from those who are facilitating intergroup dialogues online for the first time to hear more about your experiences and how you are making it through these transitions.  

About Anna Yeakley

Person in a pink shirt standing with hands on hips, smilingAnna Yeakley, PhD, MSW is a trainer, facilitator and consultant who specializes in dialogue group facilitation, learning and engaging around differences in social identities and perspectives, inclusive teaching methods, and strategies for responding to conflict and difficult conversations. Anna has over 22 year of experience in intergroup dialogue facilitation, training, program administration, and research experience. She has helped develop intergroup dialogue programs at 11 college campuses across the country. Anna’s areas of expertise include intergroup dialogue program development, facilitation skills training, dei capacity building, inclusive teaching, and dialogue through online platforms. You can connect with Anna Yeakley through her website at or email her at [email protected]

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