Precondition #1: empower the fulfillment of all vital needs in a concerted fashion
In order to empower the fulfillment of vital participant needs in a concerted fashion it is not enough for individuals to just meet spontaneously online. Participants need to feel safe and seen in the group.
Safety (experience of autonomy and of belonging)
Structure is what provides participant safety:
- Structure in time: participants meet regularly and on a set time;
- Structure in place: participants during all sessions use the same online tool that is respectful of their privacy;
- Structure in communication: sessions proceed according to a predictable, transparent protocol while the moderator enforces participant dignity by discouraging all negative, evaluating (“you are…”), rude, exaggerating, condescending, ad hominem sarcastic or ironic or off-topic remarks or reactions and gently interrupts those rambling on.
Be seen (experience of autonomy and belonging)
The meeting protocol causes people to be seen:
- The protocol encompasses two modules that allow each individual participant to be seen and heard: ‘check-in’ at the start of every session in which each participant is asked how they feel today and ‘check-out’ at the end of every session in which each participant is asked to reflect on the meaning that the session had for them.
- During these two modules only one participants speaks; all others listen and do not react;
- The moderator focuses all their attention on the participant speaking; the moderator shows no emotions and only reacts by saying ‘Thank you’ when the participant finishes.
- In addition to prompting each participant to the stage, the protocol allows for spontaneous, participant-driven communication during the discussion module.
Also, a warm[i], supportive and compassionate moderator style empowers participants to feel seen:
- The moderator discourages quick reactions; each participant should feel that they have time to express themselves; having time even after a pause or a break makes participants feel that others take them serious.
- The moderator encourages compliments between participants by giving example and by positively reacting to compliments between participants; it is important that compliments are exchanged without giving the impression of being condescending.
- The moderator gently prompts silent participants to join in.
- At the same time, the moderator should discourage self-aggrandising remarks or complaining by participants.
Next, the answers to precondition #2 ensure that people feel seen:
- There is no hierarchy in the group – no participants are ‘worse’; all share a communality and this communality is the reason for meeting.
- The moderator does not send knowledge top-down but facilitates participant communication – participants are not ‘worse’ than the moderator.
Finally, participants feel seen because the moderator stays in contact with them between meetings.
Experience of achievement
Feeling safe and seen is important to start-up a group but it is not important to ensure the existence of the group in the longer run. For this participants need to experience a feeling of achievement that goes beyond merely being seen.
- Whereas autonomy can be understood as the experienced agency, achievement can be seen as the experience of successful agency, in which ‘successful’ is defined as a step in the direction of fulfilling one’s intrinsic motivation. Successful agency does not necessarily mean successful action. It can also mean a better understanding of something or being able to ask better questions.
- The element of achievement should be part of the framing of the purpose of the group meetings to the participants. The framing should not be about overcoming problems or challenges. The framing should be social (‘belonging’) to all participants and to participants who perceive themselves as less privileged as an opportunity towards achieving a better position in society for themselves and for their offspring – not because the current situation is bad but because they are ready for the next step.
- A temporary feeling of achievement is evoked by the culture of compliments that the moderator fosters. It provides for instant gratification.
- Another temporary feeling of achievement emerges from the spontaneous discussions among participants. In these discussions it is not only about planned progress. What makes them satisfying is serendipity: unplanned but constructive outcomes. This can not be achieved by structure. It needs ‘walkability’: unplanned exchanges that only occur when there is no good reason for communication, like when meeting at the watercooler at work or in the park when walking the dog.
- On the long run participants should experience tangible achievements. This is where the check-in and check-out comments by the participants come in. The moderator should take notes during the check-in to be able to show progress over time regarding the emotional state participants are in. The participants should take note of their own check-out remarks. This note-taking is non-negotionable.
Every once in a while (proposition, every sixth session) an evaluation session should be organised in which participants reflect on their progress as shown in their subsequent check-outs and the moderator suggests changes based on their check-ins.
[i] As understood by Neffinger & Kohout (2013).