You have prepared the content, built in opportunities for participants to interact and planned a breakout room activity — now you are waiting to launch the Zoom training. Despite your thoughtful design, you may be surprised that some participants do not engage with you, the other participants, or the concepts you are presenting.

While attending a virtual training session about conflict resolution, one participant logged in and immediately changed her webcam view to a photograph. When it was time to move into breakout rooms, she did not select the button to join her small group. It was clear that she was no longer actively participating in the discussion. Indeed, the group wondered if she had left the building. (Stay tuned for more on that situation at the end of the article.)

Psychological safety is the assurance that someone will not be humiliated, embarrassed or punished for speaking openly and honestly about their opinions and feelings. If you are facilitating virtual training, you want to ensure that every participant feels comfortable actively participating in every aspect of the online synchronous experience.

While there are many virtual facilitation best practices, this article focuses on the practices that build trust and psychological safety, especially in a facilitated online learning experience. There are three areas that present opportunities for building trust when facilitating online learning: virtual presence, technical comfort and social connection.

Virtual Presence

Virtual presence describes how real and authentic you seem to people who are engaging with you online. How you present yourself on camera enhances or undermines virtual presence and trust, especially if you are the facilitator. Ideally, you can use a natural background when you present on camera. Place your laptop and webcam in front of a wall, not a window. Make sure that what people see is neat and orderly. A tidy bookshelf, a painting or a plant are all good choices. Avoid using an artificial background: Unfortunately, it leads people to wonder what you are hiding. Due to the limitations of the technology, pieces of your body and face can disappear and reappear. At best, that’s disconcerting; at worst, it undermines your authentic presence.

Technical Comfort

It can be easy to assume that every participant in your online synchronous training knows how to use the web or video conference platform. This is not necessarily the case. There will always be first-time users with a new mobile device or a new video conferencing tool. Have the virtual training producer review basic instructions at the beginning of the virtual event to be sure that everyone knows how to handle audio issues, send a chat message and use the annotation tools. If a participant can’t figure out how to stamp an arrow on the slide, for example, you may lose their attention through the rest of the session. No one likes to feel incompetent or embarrassed in a virtual training session.

If your online learning event begins to have technical challenges, acknowledge what’s happening with empathy for the participants who are affected. You might say, “I’m noticing that some of you are being dropped by the platform and that you have had to log back in again. I’m so sorry this is happening to you.” Then give some tips for improving the platform performance at their end.

Social Connection

From the opening of the virtual training session, help people feel seen, valued and celebrated. It begins with a starter question that is easy for everyone to answer. This conversation starter can be posted five or ten minutes before the start time of the web training. Both the virtual facilitator and the event producer can acknowledge people by name and encourage more participation.

Especially early in the session, avoid questions that have right or wrong answers. Instead, make it possible for every participant to succeed upfront. Your goal is to have people enjoy chatting with their peers. Pepper your comments with phrases like, “That’s a great point,” “Thank you for your heartfelt observation,” and “I appreciate that insight.”

In a virtual classroom setting with fewer than 25 participants, make it a goal to acknowledge every person present by name at least once in the first 15 minutes of the virtual training. Most people love to hear their names spoken aloud and appreciate knowing that they are contributing to a lively online learning experience.

Sometimes we must give people a quiz or test at the end of the virtual classroom session to be certain they have learned and retained the material. This testing experience may catapult a few people back to their days in school when failing a test could have negative consequences. Triggering fear is not a useful strategy when you are striving to help people succeed. Instead of putting emphasis on the need to pass the test, let people know that they will have the opportunity to check their understanding of the material. If possible, tell them that they may take the test more than once to pass it. Even better, give them the test at the beginning, then provide the training they need to learn the key information. Taking the test at the end then confirms that they have mastered the material.

Now back to that participant who logged into a virtual training on conflict resolution and then disappeared. Perhaps unintentionally, she had a negative impact on group cohesion and trust. They were discussing difficult challenges, and it was a mystery to everyone what she was doing. To increase psychological safety, the facilitator should establish group norms at the beginning of the virtual training session, including what to do if you need to step away for a moment or if you find you are unable to participate. Setting the ground rules up front can help everyone feel more confident and secure.

To increase psychological safety when facilitating virtual training, take these actions:

    • Use a real, rather than virtual background when you are on webcam.
    • Explain the key tools in the video conference platform at the opening.
    • Acknowledge and empathize if technical issues occur.
    • Validate and praise people’s input.
    • Use people’s names when acknowledging their points.
    • Reduce the fear triggered by “testing.”
    • Set group norms and ground rules up front.

How you show up as a facilitator — real, authentic and approachable — makes a significant positive impact on psychological safety. If you want to increase engagement and participation, adopt these seven practices.