Creating a safe space for a workshop on Zoom

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

We (Graeme Stuart, Selene Moonbeams, Jim Thom and Rob Duncan) are a team of Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) facilitators who are about to trial our first workshop online. Over the past few weeks we have been experimenting and discussing with other AVP facilitators in Australia about how to offer workshops via Zoom. In this post we discuss creating a safe, non-judgemental space where people can speak about their personal experience and try new behaviours. (See What are AVP workshops? for an overview an AVP face-to-face workshop and Promoting Nonviolent Relationships: Alternatives to Violence Project Workshops with Parentsabout some AVP workshops with parents.)

AVP workshops are usually 18-22 hours (spread over two or three days) but we believe that a full day on Zoom would be too much. We are thus trialling 2 X 2.5 hour session per week (on a Monday and a Thursday) for four weeks. It is going to be an exciting experiment. We are particularly pleased that the facilitators and participants are coming from Newcastle (on the east coast of Australia) and Perth (on the west coast of Australia)—over 5000 kms apart. It is a great opportunity to share slightly different approaches.

Creating a safe, comfortable space for participants in an online context adds some significant challenges, and will be crucial for the success of the workshop. The following are some of the key strategies we hope will help us create such a space.

Zoom settings

1. We will not allow participants to join the Zoom session before the host. One of the choices we have in setting up a Zoom session is whether or not to allow participants in the room before the person hosting the meeting. We are concerned that if participants join the meeting before the host, we can’t be part of the interactions to ensure that everyone is respectful and appropriate. While we doubt there would be problems, it is a risk. Also if Zoombombing occurs before the host is present, it is much harder to manage it.

2. If need be we will protect against Zoombombing, by requiring a password to join the meeting. We think we are low risk as the link will not be shared widely.

3. We are NOT allowing private messages to be sent between participants. When setting up Zoom sessions, we could prevent participants from being able to send any messages through the Group Chat or allow participants to chat (or send messages) only to the host, everyone publicly, or everyone publicly or privately. The private chat allows participants to send a message to another person without anybody else seeing it, which creates a risk that participants could send an inappropriate comment or question, and they can be distracting for the people involved. We are allowing public chats (so anybody can send a message that everybody can see) as they can be useful for things like sharing a link, or posting what the gathering is (a gathering we the way we start each session with each participant saying their name and answering a question related to the sessions focus), and allow for communication if there is a problem with somebodies microphone or sound.

4. We are not using a waiting room (which places participants in a waiting room until the host lets them in to the main session) or locking the session (which prevents people joining the session after it has started, even if they have the password). In one of our trial sessions, a couple of participants were left in the waiting room for over a minute (because the host was dealing with another issue) and they find it quite unsettling. Participants might already be feeling quite nervous about joining the workshop and we don’t want to do anything that increases their unease. If people drop out of the session (e.g., if there is a problem with their internet), if the room is locked they cannot re-join (unless the session is unlocked again), so we will leave the room open.

Experience with Zoom and Zoom etiquette

5. We have been experimenting with Zoom a lot so that we are familiar with the features we are going to use (including breakout rooms, the whiteboard, sharing screens, and managing participants) and the differences between different devices (e.g., computers, tablets, smart phones). There are still things we are unsure about (e.g., in a session today some people were able to send a private message to the host but other could not). We believe it is important to have somebody who is confident with Zoom so they can handle issues as they arise (e.g., muting people or even removing somebody from the Zoom room if necessary.)

6. At the start of the workshop we are planning to discuss Zoom etiquette. At the moment—it will probably change—we are planning to request the following:

  • That people mute themselves if there is background noise (including a temporary disruption like somebody else comes into the room talking, or they are about to cough or sneeze).
  • That people turn on their video as much as they are comfortable with, and that they have it on (if they can) at least briefly at the start of the session and occasionally throughout the session. Some people find not being about to see the other participants quite off-putting and so we hope people will have their videos on all the time. At the same time, we realise some people may not be able to have their video on all the time (e.g., if they have a poor internet connection their sound quality is often better when their video is off) or they might be uncomfortable with the video on (e.g., they might suffer from anxiety, or they might need to join the workshop from their bedroom).
  • That if people want to speak, they put up their actual hand (in a way that we can see in their video). We have found it hard to monitor the raise hand feature in Zoom and some people have found it hard to use. As our workshops are generally fairly small (this workshop will have about 12 participants and 4 facilitators) it is relatively easy to see if people have physically raised their hand. At times this will not be necessary (e.g., in small breakout rooms) or if not many people are wanting to speak at the same time.
  • That they don’t use the chat for private, off topic comments.
  • That they do not simply leave the session without letting us know, and that they let us know if anything is bothering or upsetting us.
  • That they close their other programs or applications on their computer/phone and not to look at emails, messages etc during the session.

7. Whenever we introduce a new feature of Zoom, we will make sure everybody knows how to use it before proceeding. For example, we plan to use the whiteboard a bit, so we will make sure everybody can draw on it before using it for an exercise. Where possible we will create a brief energiser (or what AVP calls a light and lively) which helps people to explore the Zoom feature. E.g., This is a community drawing we did in a session with around 15 AVP facilitators.

A close up of a map

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8. We try to keep in mind that Zoom is different on different devices, so we need to be aware, for example, that how someone mutes their microphone is different on a phone compared to a computer.

9. Early on we will show people how to rename themselves in Zoom and once affirmation names have been introduced (an exercise in AVP where people give themselves a positive name) we will ask them to rename themselves with an affirmation name at the start of each session. Before we have introduced their affirmation name we will ask them to remove their surname.

Use of breakout rooms

10. We have had lots of practice, and discussion about, using breakout rooms. They are a great opportunity for small group discussion, but there are also some risks. Unless one of the facilitators is in the breakout room, we have no way of knowing what is happening. Normally in a workshop, when participants are in small groups, or pairs we can see what is happening (e.g., we can wander close by to check all is ok, or we can join a group when it is a good time.) In a Zoom breakout room, while the host can join a room, it is much more abrupt, and we can’t wait for a lull in the conversation.  

11. Before using breakout rooms, we will make sure everybody knows how to leave a breakout room. Before we use them for a small group discussion we will invite them to practice joining and leave a breakout room. We will create breakout rooms and ask them to join one and then to come straight back. We might also do is a second time and broadcast a quick task to everyone while they are in the breakout room (e.g., find out what everybody’s favourite food is) so that they are used to seeing broadcasted messages. This means that if they feel uncomfortable in a breakout room or something is not quite right, they know how to leave and come back to the main room. This is an example where we will turn it into a bit of a game, e.g., by asking them to see how quickly they can get in and out of the room.

12. We will always have a facilitator in the main room, just in case they are needed.

13. Until we have been able to access the group dynamic, we will be careful about creating small groups in breakout rooms, without a facilitator in each group. In some workshops there might be participants known to the facilitators who have existing skills who can be used as a safe person in a small group. In the coming workshop we have a few people who are youth or family workers known to some of the team, so we might be able to use them to create more than three small groups early on. (With four facilitators, as one needs to stay in the main room, there can only be three breakout rooms with a facilitator). We are planning to do the affirmation exercise (where we invite participants to talk about what they like doing and then what they like about themselves) in group of threes rather than the usual pairs. As we will have five groups (assuming there are 12 participants) we will need to use two of the participants with relevant experience to make sure the small groups are safe. If we did not have any participants who we were confident had the necessary skills, we would do the exercise with five people (including a facilitator) in each group.

Other AVP practices

14. We will have a very strong focus on community building in the first and possibly second session.

15, In the first session we will facilitate a safety circle, where we go around the group twice with each person saying: what they need to feel safe in this workshop the first time, and what they can do to help make the group safe the second time.

16. We will make sure we use invitational language (that invites people to do something rather than tells them what they must do), making sure everybody has the right to pass, and creating a non-judgemental space.

Things we don’t know

17. We will ask participants to respect and care for themselves, and the people they live with. We don’t know what else is happening in the room or house for them so we will encourage themselves to think about how they can create a safe space for themselves. For example, there might be people in hearing distance so they might need to be careful about what they say. They might be living with people who are not supportive and might make fun of them if they take part in light and livelies, so we need make it easy for them to pass, mute, turn of the video, or to do whatever they need to look after themselves.

18. We also need to remind everyone, that they need to be aware that it is possible that there might be other people in somebody else’s room or house who can hear what is said. There will be significant limits to confidentiality. When we discuss confidentiality, we will ask participants to indicate if there are other around who can hear. It might help if participants can use head or ear phones.

We don’t know how the workshop will go, but we hope by taking the time to create a safe, welcoming space and to build community that we will lay a strong foundation for a successful workshop. While there will be some limitations, it is also opening up new possibilities.

We’d love to hear how you create a safe space in an online setting.

To cite this post using APA 7 style:

Stuart, G., Moonbeams, S., Thom, J. & Duncan, R. (2020, 2 May). Creating a safe space for a workshop on Zoom. Sustaining Community blog.

If you liked this post please follow my blog, and you might like to look at:

  1. What are Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshops?
  2. The Alternatives to Violence Project: Reflections on a strengths-based approach to nonviolent relationships and conflict resolution
  3. An interactive exercise exploring parenting styles
  4. Seven principles for a strengths-based approach to working with groups
  5.  Power and strengths-based practice
  6. 7 principles guiding my work

If you find any problems with the blog, (e.g., broken links or typos) I’d love to hear about them. You can either add a comment below or contact me via the Contact page.

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, environmentalist, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace, sustainability.
This entry was posted in Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), Families & parenting, Working with communities and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Creating a safe space for a workshop on Zoom

  1. Monteray C Anderson says:

    Awesome ! Thanks for sharing practical tips and Zoom etiquette!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Chad Dell says:

    Graeme, I’m really enjoying reading these materials. We did a mini at AVP-New Jersey, and benefited considerably from your suggestions. One thing that would really help in your agenda is a listing of how long the exercise actually took, in addition to how long you had planned for it.
    Cheerful Chad
    AVP-New Jersey


  3. Tigger says:

    Great article, thank you. Good luck with your workshop(s)!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Michael Burke says:

    Hi Graeme,
    Great article and I’ve been thinking through similar issues for parenting groups. I wonder what thoughts you have about protecting peoples confidentiality in the digital sphere where it is so easy for a participant to record parts of a session either by the app or by using a screen capture program. Would this be part of a group rules/agreement conversation? and nevertheless because of the ease with which to transfer video across the net, does this mean that a higher level of self censorship for participants may be required? That some group conversations are less safe?

    And secondly are you still recruiting participants?

    Goodluck and thanks for your reflections.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Michael,
      Yes confidentiality is something we are thinking of. We recognise the ease with which things could be recorded etc. While something similar could be done in a normal workshop (e.g., by recording with a phone) it is easier when it is online and it seems that people are willing to do things online that they would not do face-to-face.

      I don’t know how we could totally protect it. We ask participants to let us know if others are in the room with them or if people come in the room, and we have also suggested that participants need to think about what they say as we can’t ensure confidentiality.

      I think this is one reason why community building and creating safety at the start of the workshop is so important.

      I’m afraid the workshop is full. We decided to limit it to 12 participants and 4 facilitators and the workshop was full in a few days with no advertising. I suspect we could have easily got to 50 or even 100 if we had worked at it! (But I would have been much more worried about group safety!!)

      With how well it is going so far (we’ve now had two sessions) I’m sure we will be doing some more. I’ll let you know when the next one is coming up.

      Thanks again


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