Home Equipping Leaders CONTENT LIBRARY Holding Courageous Conversations Online

Holding Courageous Conversations Online

By Scott Hughes

Stock virtual meeting

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, churches are unable to hold as many (if any) in-person conversations. At the moment, it is foolish to guess when a return to in-person gatherings will become commonplace. This raises the question, “How do we have these important conversations through online formats such as video conferencing?” The need for such discussions becomes even more urgent as churches seek to engage in conversations about racism and what it would look like to become anti-racist. In the near future, many churches will be seeking out ways to engage in conversations about the future of the United Methodist Church and might need to hold these conversations through online platforms.

Before we get into specifics and techniques for holding such conversations, it is probably advisable to clarify why having these conversations through online platforms are particularly challenging. First, all important conversations should be held in ways that allow people to see one another’s reactions. (Can you imagine proposing to a potential spouse and not being able to see his/her face? Or imagine being fired from a job without the dignity of this news coming from an in-person communication.)

Partly out of respect for those we are in difficult conversations with, we need the benefit of gauging what we say with how that affects the other person. That’s why it is a lot easier to hide behind a keyboard and state our emotions and opinions when we don’t have to be confronted with how our words affect others. When we are unaware of how another person is affected by our statements, we are unaware of the harm we are causing. It is the fear of causing harm and witnessing someone else’s pain that makes us hesitant to give challenging and potentially divisive words to someone’s face. We don’t want to see others in pain. Their pain will cause us pain. (Just consider your reaction to watching someone else cry.)

Being aware of this dynamic should help us realize the value of a videoconference platform that allows us the benefit of seeing one another’s faces. While these platforms have the option of participating without the use of video, the value of seeing other people’s faces is crucial and, as much as possible, should be a requirement for participation.

How Should We Proceed?

As difficult as it is to have these conversations through videoconference platforms, it should not be an excuse for not having them. Even if it means that what can be achieved through online conversations is more modest than an in-person meeting or that the conversations might take even more time, these are still conversations worth having. So, we should still proceed with these difficult conversations with the following observations.

Reinforce the conversation guidelines/covenant. The importance of having conversation guidelines and/or a covenant cannot be understated. See “Examples of Guidelines and Covenants.” These guidelines establish the expectations for how participants will engage in the conversations. They also provide boundaries for the conversations. These guidelines or covenant should be visible for all participants. You might have participants sign a copy before they are able to participate. The guidelines or covenant could be emailed, accessed on your church’s website, or distributed through the videoconference platform (or even snail mailed). Guidelines and/or a covenant will also foster an environment of cognitive safety. Without this kind of safety, participants are much less likely to fully engage in the conversation.

Have a plan in place for dealing with someone who is out of line. The most common question I get at Courageous Conversation workshops is, “What do we do if someone gets out of line?” This is another benefit of having guidelines or a covenant that participants have agreed upon. Whether it is a moderator of the conversation, a facilitator, or another participant who feels that another participant is out of line, this is the time to refer back to the covenant and address the situation. The conversation should cease, and participants should be asked if they will continue to abide by the covenant. It might be the case that the covenant needs to be modified. It might also be the case that a participant will need to be asked if he/she can continue following the covenant. If the individual cannot, it is permissible to assert that the participant cannot continue in the present conversation. This does not make the participant in the wrong, nor should this be done in any way that shames the person. Rather, it is stating that the current conversation will be conducted by the previously agreed upon guidelines and that if the person cannot agree to that, he/she should find another opportunity to discuss the issue.

Do everything in the church’s power to make sure all participants are able to participate using video to display their face for all to see. (In Zoom, be sure to use the gallery format and not the presenter view.) This should be true for large-group and breakout rooms as well. Reinforce the importance of being able to see other participants’ faces. While the church does not have to limit conversations to people with the capabilities to have a webcam to display their face, at least the majority of the group should be able to do so. For those who do not have the capability of using a webcam, you might have them tell upfront who they are and their connection to the church to help other participants envision whom they are speaking with, even when they cannot see them via video.

Take time to make participants comfortable with the technology. Holding conversations on digital platforms presents unique challenges. Some participants might not be as familiar with how to mute themselves, so they may make distracting noises. (I once was on a video conference when someone, not knowing how to mute herself and was unaware that we could all hear, proceeded to order food for the family.) Help participants eliminate distracting background noises and become aware of all the potential for noises that might interrupt the conversation. If you plan to use breakout rooms (see below), practice moving participants in and out of the virtual rooms, so they become familiar with how that works. If you plan to use other features such as polling, Q&A, or chat features, practice so that participants gain competence; otherwise, they are less likely to fully engage in the videoconference.

Use breakout rooms. If the videoconference platform your church uses has the capability to use breakout rooms, it is highly recommended that you use them. The use of small groups is essential both in videoconferencing and in-person Courageous Conversations. It is even more important to have small groups when using video conferencing platforms. Without the normal cues, it is much harder to tell when someone is going to speak. It is easier to speak over one another in a videoconference platform. Breakout rooms with three to four participants is much easier to manage than larger groups. One best practice is to structure the conversations in breakout rooms so participants know when to speak. (Go in alphabetical order, reverse alphabetical order, the order in which they appeared in the room, by age, etc.)

Recognize and name assumptions. It seems one downside of living in the information age (when combined with a highly partisan culture) is that many participants will come with their own set of facts and assumptions. One of the critiques I receive from the structure of Courageous Conversation is that it is too restrictive. My response is that it should feel restrictive. (That’s probably a good test if you’re doing it correctly!) When done well, in a way that fosters learning, these conversations might feel mechanical. It is only when we slow down enough to hear one another that we can become more aware of our assumptions, of questioning whether something is fact or opinion, whether our beliefs are based on facts or anecdotes. Due to the limitation of videoconference platforms, these conversations will likely need to proceed at an even slower pace than in-person conversations.

Take proper security precautions to improve trust. There are at least two reasons to pay attention to security when it comes to videoconferencing. The first reason is so that keep out hackers. Unfortunately, this has become a reality (I have witnessed this myself more than once) that churches need to take appropriate steps to prevent unwanted visitors. It is advisable not to have a link to the videoconference published on a publicly accessible site. Use security measures that include waiting rooms and passwords. The church could also send invitations directly to participants. The second reason to take security precautions is to instill an atmosphere of trust and care. Participation will increase the more participants trust the process and feel confident what is shared will remain private.

Sample Outline for Initial Conversation (Session 1)

The following is merely a sample. Feel free to adapt the time and other variables as needed for your context.

Estimated Timeline

The following is based on a sixty-minute timeframe. Adjust as needed. Due to the unique dynamics of holding a Courageous Conversation, it is harder to maintain deep dialogue longer than sixty to ninety minutes.

  • Opening Prayer (2 minutes)
  • Overview (10 minutes)
  • Practice with Technology (20 minutes total for each of the follow:)
  • Poll or Survey (5 minutes)
  • Breakout Groups – Hopes (10 minutes)
  • Chat Panel Responses (5 minutes)
  • Large-Group Reflection – Naming fears (15 minutes)
  • Breakout Groups (10 minutes)
  • Closing Remarks and Prayer (3 minutes)

Courageous Conversation

Opening Prayer

  • Before officially beginning, help participants mute themselves, if they have not done so already.
  • Begin with silence and/or the lighting of a candle to represent God’s presence. This time of silence is important to center the group and mark the space and time as unique.
  • Open with prayer.* (*See bottom of the document) (For sample prayers, see “Prayer Guide for Courageous Conversations.”)

Overview

  • Give an overview of the main topic of discussion. Read the conversation guidelines and/or covenant.* Reinforce that this a space place for people to freely express their opinions and perspectives.

Practice with the technology

Opening Poll:

  • Launch a poll similar to the following: (Point out if the poll is anonymous)
  • How does the thought of engaging in a difficult conversation with this group make you feel?
  • Excited
  • Fearful of creating a wider division
  • Fearful of loss of relationships
  • Hopeful to find areas of agreement
  • Fearful of rejection
  • Comment on the group’s response

Breakout Groups

  • Discuss the logistics of breaking into groups. (They might need to accept a message asking them to join a room.) Discuss how they will return to the main videoconference room when the breakout rooms are over. Let them know if they will receive a warning before joining the main group.
  • Give the following question for the groups to discuss once they are in their breakout rooms:
  • What are you hoping to receive from these conversations? (You could also type the question in the chat panel or have it on a slide displayed using the share screen option before breaking the participants into the breakout rooms.)
  • Divide participants into groups of two to four people.

Chat panels

  • Once people have returned to the main group, instead of hearing reports from each group, ask participants to share what they heard in their groups by typing their responses in the chat panel (without including their names for anonymity).
  • Have one person assigned to read some or all of the responses to the group.

Large-Group Reflection – Naming the fears

  • Earlier, we named some of the potential fears leading into a difficult conversation. Now is the time to engage those fears more fully. When we name the fears, that robs them of their power and helps us to more fully engage in the conversation—especially when we can address the fears.
  • Have the leader or leaders share their fears first. Then, call on participants in some particular order. They could raise their hands. They could state their willingness to speak in the chat panel. (Avoid calling on people before they are ready to speak. This will likely make more people apprehensive. If there is hesitancy on the part of the group to go first, hold your silence; someone will eventually be willing to go first.)
  • Before calling on a participant, name the time limit for each speaker. Depending on the time allotted and the number of participants, this could be anywhere from one sentence, to one minute, to five minutes.
  • Their comments should center on: “What fears do you have entering this conversation?”

Breakout Groups

  • Break groups into smaller groups of four or fewer people.
  • Each group should share prayer requests. Either one person should pray for all the requests mentioned, or have each person pray for someone else in the group.

Closing remarks

  • Thank participants for their willingness to engage in the conversations. Acknowledge that it takes courage to do so. Acknowledge that as we become better listeners and as we learn together, we become better disciples of Jesus Christ.
  • Offer a closing prayer.

Sample Outline for Conversation (Session 2)

The following is merely a sample. Feel free to adapt the time and other variables as needed for your particular context.

Estimated Timeline

The following is based on a seventy-five-minute timeframe. Adjust as needed. Due to the unique dynamics of holding a Courageous Conversation, it is harder to maintain deep dialogue longer than sixty to ninety minutes.

  • Opening Prayer (5 minutes)
  • Check-in (10 minutes)
  • Main Topic (45 minutes)
  • Large-Group Reflection (10 minutes)
  • Closing Remarks and Prayer (5 minutes)

Courageous Conversation

Opening Prayer

Check-in

  • Break participants into groups with a maximum of four people per group. Allow each participant no more than two minutes to answer any or all of the following:
  • What is keeping you from being fully present today?
  • What I hope for today is . . .
  • My greatest concern/fear regarding this is . . .
  • Remind the participants that this is a time of naming and listening, not discussing – that will come later.

Main Topic

  • Introduce the topic. Read the conversation guidelines and/or covenant.* Reinforce that this a space place for people to freely express their opinions and perspectives.
  • Before breaking into breakout groups, explain that in the breakout groups only one person at a time should be speaking. Participants should speak in order (alphabetically, reverse alphabetically, or some other designed order). Participants should speak only for the allotted time (for example, one or two minutes). Everyone else should be listening. Everyone should speak at least once before someone speaks a second time.
  • Make sure the participants are clear about the question(s) they will be discussing in their groups.
  • Give one minute of silence and then break participants into groups with a maximum of five people per group to discuss the following:
  • What has been your experience with this topic?
  • What value undergirds what you believe?
  • What are you most curious about regarding this issue?

Large-Group Reflection

  • Either using the chat panel or by calling on willing participants, allow participants to share one idea they heard that still has them thinking or has them curious.
  • This is not the time for participants to share their opinions, but the perspectives of others.

Closing remarks

  • Thank participants for their willingness to engage in the conversation. Acknowledge that it takes courage to do so. Acknowledge that as we become better listeners and as we learn together, we become better disciples of Jesus Christ.
  • Offer a closing prayer.

Sample Outline for Conversation (Session 3)

The following is merely a sample. Feel free to adapt the time and other variables as needed for your context.

Estimated Timeline

The following is based on a seventy-five-minute timeframe. Adjust as needed. Due to the unique dynamics of holding a Courageous Conversation, it is harder to maintain deep dialogue longer than sixty to ninety minutes.

  • Opening Prayer (5 minutes)
  • Check-in (10 minutes)
  • Main Topic (45 minutes)
  • Large-Group Reflection – Naming fears (10 minutes)
  • Closing Remarks and Prayer (5 minutes)

Courageous Conversation

Opening Prayer

Check-in

  • Break participants into groups with a maximum of four people per group. Allow each participant no more than two minutes to answer any or all of the following:
  • What is keeping you from being fully present today?
  • What I hope for today is . . .
  • My greatest concern/fear regarding this is . . .
  • Remind the participants that this is a time of naming and listening, not discussing – that will come later.

Main Topic

  • Introduce the topic. Read the conversation guidelines and/or covenant.* Reinforce that this is a space place for people to freely express their opinions and perspectives.
  • Before breaking into breakout groups, explain that in the breakout groups, only one person at a time should be speaking. Participants should speak in order (alphabetically, reverse alphabetically, or some other designed order). Participants should speak only for the allotted time (for example, one or two minutes). Everyone else should be listening. Everyone should speak at least once before someone speaks a second time.
  • Make sure the participants are clear about the question(s) they will be discussing in their groups. (Note that these groups are slightly larger. The hope is that due to the number of participants, this will provide more opportunities to hear perspectives that cause disagreement. Remind participants that when they hear statements that seem to conflict with their own or raise their anxiety to use it as an opportunity to learn.)
  • Give one minute of silence and then break participants into groups with a maximum of five people per group to discuss the following:
  • What Bible stories or passages shape how we might view this?
  • Where do you believe God is involved in this issue?
  • What is the strength of someone else’s perspective that you disagree with? What is the weakness of your own perspective?

Large-Group Reflection

  • Either using the chat panel or by calling on willing participants, allow them to share one idea they heard that still has them thinking or has them curious.
  • This is not the time for participants to share their opinions, but the perspectives of others.

Closing remarks

  • Thank participants for their willingness to engage in the conversation. Acknowledge that it takes courage to do so. Acknowledge that as we become better listeners and as we learn together, we become better disciples of Jesus Christ. Note that though the sessions might end, the conversation will be ongoing and that participants should take intentional time to build relationships with those who hold different perspectives.
  • Offer a closing prayer.

Sample Outline for Conversation (Session 4)

The following is merely a sample. Feel free to adapt the time and other variables as needed for your context.

Estimated Timeline

The following is based on a seventy-five-minute timeframe. Adjust as needed. Due to the unique dynamics of holding a Courageous Conversation, it is harder to maintain deep dialogue longer than sixty to ninety minutes.

  • Opening Prayer (5 minutes)
  • Check-in (10 minutes)
  • Main Topic (45 minutes)
  • Large-Group Reflection – Naming fears (10 minutes)
  • Closing Remarks and Prayer (5 minutes)

Courageous Conversation

Opening Prayer

  • Before officially beginning, help participants mute themselves, if they have not done so already.
  • Begin with silence and/or the lighting of a candle to represent God’s presence. This time of silence is important to center the group and mark the space and time as unique.* (For examples, see “Prayer Guide for Courageous Conversations.”)

Check-in

  • Break participants into groups with a maximum of four people per group. Allow each participant no more than two minutes to answer any or all of the following:
  • What is keeping you from being fully present today?
  • What I hope for today is . . .
  • My greatest concern/fear regarding this is . . .
  • Remind the participants that this is a time of naming and listening, not discussing – that will come later.

Main Topic

  • Introduce the topic. Read the conversation guidelines and/or covenant.* Reinforce that this is a space place for people to freely express their opinions and perspectives.
  • Before breaking into breakout groups, note that this will be slightly different from the other experiences of breakout groups. Participants will be switching groups more frequently. The pattern should be that each question should be discussed multiple times at a slightly quicker pace. For example, the first question should be the focus of each group, allowing only a minute for each participant to respond. After five minutes, the participants should be reshuffled into new groups and focus on the same question. This can be repeated as many times as needed, depending on the length of the session and the number of participants. This will give participants an opportunity to hear from multiple participants for each question. This pattern should be repeated for each question.
  • Reinforce that what remains the same is that in the breakout groups only one person at a time should be speaking. Participants should speak in order (alphabetically, reverse alphabetically, or some other designed order). Participants should speak only for the allotted time (for example, one or two minutes). Everyone else should be listening. Everyone should speak at least once before someone speaks a second time.
  • Make sure the participants are clear about the question they will be discussing in their groups. Allow one minute of silence before participants begin each round of questions.
  • Break participants into groups with a maximum of four people per group to discuss the following question:
  • What might various perspectives have in common?
  • Repeat this pattern with the next question:
  • What interests or values are shared by those who hold differing perspectives?
  • Repeat the pattern once more with the final question:
  • What do you need to move forward?

Large-Group Reflection

  • Either using the chat panel or by calling on willing participants, allow them to share one idea they heard that still has them thinking or has them curious.
  • This is not the time for participants to share their opinions, but the perspectives of others.

Closing remarks

  • Thank participants for their willingness to engage in the conversation. Acknowledge that it takes courage to do so. Acknowledge that as we become better listeners and as we learn together, we become better disciples of Jesus Christ. Note that though the sessions might end, the conversation will be ongoing and that participants should take intentional time to build relationships with those who hold different perspectives.
  • Offer a closing prayer.

* You could send as part of a handout so that all could follow along or share in the chat panel or use the option of sharing your screen.

Scott Hughes is the Executive Director of Congregational Vitality & Intentional Discipleship, Elder in the North Georgia Conference, M.Div. Asbury Theological Seminary, D. Min. Southern Methodist University, co-host of the Small Groups in the Wesleyan Way podcast, creator of the Courageous Conversations project, and facilitator of the How to Start Small Groups teaching series.

Contact Us for Help

View staff by program area to ask for additional assistance.

Related