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ATD Blog

And Then There Were Two: Co-Facilitation on Webinars

Wednesday, February 24, 2021
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Co-facilitating has many benefits for face-to-face sessions and webinars or other virtual meetings. But without an agreed upon plan, co-facilitation can turn into a live mess. Here are some things to consider before your next co-facilitated webinar.

The Ideal Scenario

The ideal scenario is for the two facilitators to take turns leading and following. They should seamlessly switch back and forth, but it should always be clear who is the lead facilitator and who is the co-facilitator. There is never a tussle for power. Instead, like a dance, it feels like a planned back-and-forth that appears to build on each facilitator’s expertise. They should also respect each other.

That dance doesn’t just happen. It takes some knowledge, skill, advanced planning, and a little experience. The lead and your co-facilitator should meet in advance, agree on some principles, select a back-channel communication method, practice on the technology for the event, and be clear about when and how you’ll do your pass-offs.

Learners First

A key principle for facilitators is to always put the learners first, no matter what. Their needs come before ours. This dogged devotion to learners leads to a strategy of helping learners focus on just one thing—one presenter, one image, one set of content. It is important for learners to know clearly which facilitator to focus on. Do not split their attention.

To achieve this focus, for a face-to-face class, I recommend that the co-facilitator take a seat at the back of the room. In a virtual setting, this translates to the co-facilitator being still but present. They shouldn’t move around a lot nor raise their hand to signal they have something to add. And, oddly enough, it is bad for a Co to turn off their video because it signals that it’s OK for others to do the same and can lower the overall energy of the group.

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This single-focus concept makes the pass-off between facilitators critical. It’s a bit easier on webinars because whomever is speaking has their face shown on the screen. However, to instill the utmost trust of the learners in the pair of facilitators, it is best to do verbal pass-offs, such as, “Danielle, do you have anything to add?” or “That wraps up XYZ. For ABC, let me turn it over to Crystal.”

Back Channel Communications

The lead facilitator and co-facilitator need to communicate during the session. Maybe it’s just a chat question that the lead facilitator missed, or perhaps they skipped stating a key definition that is much needed. But be careful about visually signaling the lead facilitator.

Instead, try these techniques:

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  • Set up a private chat via virtual technology. I struggle with this one because I’m too focused on my learners and content to see the chat, so I opt for text messages via my phone or an unrelated app (like a muted Google Hangouts when I’m on a Zoom call).
  • Have points when the lead facilitator will proactively ask the co-facilitator if they have anything to add. This should be at planned points throughout the session. In addition, whenever the lead facilitator needs a moment to refocus or find their place in the script, asking the co-facilitator if they have anything to add can be helpful. One out of three times the co-facilitator should be able to say, “No, I think you covered it well.” This tells the learners that your training partner is doing a good job and that the two of you are aligned. It instills greater confidence in the trainers. Greater confidence leads to greater trust, which increases the propensity for learning.
  • Co-facilitators often feel like the lead facilitators missed something critical. When the co-facilitators tempted to interrupt the leads, I encourage them to pause. Often times lead facilitators will address what their co-facilitators had in mind but later or in a different way. Also, keep in mind that in any one session—be it for an hour or a few days or a week—facilitators can’t convey everything that they know to learners. The lead facilitator may have chosen to skip something on purpose, so I encourage co-facilitators to trend toward letting it go versus commenting.
  • If co-facilitators notice a few learners with quizzical looks and think they know why, use the chat tool. Add comments to further define or explain what the lead facilitator just said. Always underscore what the lead says and never refute them. Think about building and adding on to the lead facilitator’s words, even typing those words for greater emphasis.

Stand-Up Energy

Virtual can get stale. Mix it up by adding some energy with stand-up co-facilitating. There are several options.

  • Plan to do the entire session with the lead facilitator standing and the co-facilitator sitting. This makes it perfectly clear who is leading and when there is a pass-off between facilitators.
  • Run an activity with the mics wide open and the co-facilitator jotting down learner responses on a chart pad. Zero in on the chart pad during the debrief. This helps everyone get disentangled from whiteboards, chats, and technology.
  • Rather than both facilitators being face-front in the webcam with the perfect lighting and background, mix up the setting. The first setting is the standard head- and shoulder-shot. The second setting is standing at the flipchart (to draw a concept or jot down learner input). The third setting shows the facilitator in their chair looking down to read their notes. This third one is the ideal position when learners are doing an activity or poll. It indicates that you are not in charge or doing the work and gives the learners a break from your eyes. This position says, “We’re available but not on stage. Focus on the activity.”

The Best Training Session Ever

Preparation and a backup plan make a huge difference. Learners should feel as if this session was the greatest session ever, no matter what happens behind the scenes. My co-facilitator, Crystal Kadakia, and I were unexpectedly thrown into a virtual session for a two-day face-to-face class when my plane left me stranded 600 miles away for four days. Crystal was live, and I went virtual, and no one knew that this was not the plan. We did not apologize nor did we explain. We simply co-facilitated.

The only complaint came from one participant who complained that Crystal was the typical millennial who couldn’t stay off her phone. (She and I were planning the next steps for the course.) The rest of the feedback was positive, some even commenting that it felt so modern to have one of our facilitators work virtually with the class. Now that’s the kind of co-facilitation teamwork that puts our learners first.

How do these concepts and tips track with your own experience? Your comments are welcomed. Modern practices change every day, and we are here to learn together.

About the Author

Lisa M.D. Owens is a learning expert who applies learning sciences to create training programs that move businesses forward. She designs training for the in-person and virtual classrooms and the web. Lisa founded Training Design Strategies LLC in 2012 to help companies achieve their goals through the power of training. Beyond her current client work, she is an instructor for Ohio University’s instructional design graduate program and on GC-ASTD’s Executive Advisory Board. She is co-author of the college textbook Your Career: How to Make It Happen, the books Leaders as Teachers Action Guide and Lo start-up di una Corporate University, and a series of articles for CorpU on creating corporate universities. Lisa holds a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and a master’s degree in education.