I see you: Creating online social connection

Going online has been a hard sell for some. “I can’t see what they are thinking,” one person explained. “When I’m in the room, I can read their body language to know if they get what I’m saying. I just can’t do that online.” Board members miss the side chatter. It is hard to get to know someone when they are a small box on a screen rather than a colleague sitting on one side.

I get it. I teach and facilitate meetings guided by how much I see the people in the room lean in or back to an idea, how wide their faces become when I say something radical, like “cash flow statement,” or how much buzz is in the room when I invite a “turn to your neighbor” opportunity. The same can be said about a meeting or conference. It is different being online.

The opportunity lies in how intentionally we invite social connection in our online events. I’ve written in the past about playing around with time and space to increase engagement—that one Zoom call is not your only opportunity to build your relationship. A 2012 article about a virtual academy in North Carolina introduces five key elements in their “social presence model,” which I curated down to three. Think about how these three ideas might help you create social connection in your next online session:

Emotional connection

Feedback through facial expressions and body language
Notice these participants’ body language. What do you see? Who is paying attention? Who is distracted? What could you do to energize this group?

In your next meeting or online workshop, study the body language of the people attending. (You may need to change your view to the “Brady Bunch” boxes.) Look at their faces, examine how their bodies are leaning inward or backward or how their heads are nodding or twisted to one side. (That’s the international sign for “I have no idea what you are talking about.”) You can see a lot more than you might think. When I’m delivering a session, I have the participants right under my camera so I can see people’s faces and bodies as I talk. Not everyone has their camera on, but the people who do provide important feedback. (And you can intentionally invite people to turn on or off their camera as a part of your engagement strategy.) When I see a shrug or a laugh, I call people by name and honor the feedback they just gave me. They are usually surprised that I saw them. Hey, I didn’t turn on their camera– they did– for which I am grateful.

Community cohesion

Participants see the group as a community

Lately I’ve been working with groups who join sessions as a community, and this makes community cohesion easier to achieve. You don’t, however, need people to know each other to create a sense of common purpose. You can do so in how you invite them into the space, how you introduce the narrative of your event, and how you construct peer conversations through break-out rooms or other similar tools. Our goal here is to create the space as a learning community so we leverage all of the knowledge brought by diverse participants.

Interaction intensity

Participants respond to each other

It is one thing to build a connection between you and the group. It is another to foster connection across participants so people draw on each other’s knowledge, perspectives, and resources. I most see this happen in the chat box, in breakout groups, and in collaboration tools used alongside a call (Mural, Padlet, Google docs, etc.) This sense of connection also happens when people know who is with them in the space, achieved through introductions or a list of attendees.

Yes, online is not the same. And there is a whole world of opportunity online when we explore ways to build social connection while reaching more people in new ways. We got this!

We’ll be talking more about how to build social presence online in our October 1 “Online Leading and Learning” session, as well as during the October 7 & 14 Trainer Academy with the Idaho Nonprofit Center. Join us!

GREAT RESOURCE: Download Evidence-Based Ideas for Virtual Classroom Experiences. See pages 24-25 for a rubric for assessing interaction. This would be particularly helpful for cohorts or course leaders.

Published by Nancy

I work at the intersection of learning, nonprofits, and leadership. I am a teacher, instructional designer, and nonprofit person who has worn every hat possible. I regular write, speak, and consult on learning strategy, design, and leadership.

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