Blog by Make Space Collective, April 2021
Facilitating brave conversations online
Make Space is a user-led collective. We create spaces for more generous, nuanced, and caring conversations about self-harm. When we first began Make Space, we assumed we’d do most of this work in person. In contrast, for obvious reasons, we have ended up working solely online. Over the past year we’ve thought very carefully about what it means to facilitate online conversations around self-harm that are safe and thoughtful. While our work is focussed on self-harm, a lot of our learnings apply to all kinds of conversations that may feel complicated or ‘risky’.
We recently held a session in collaboration with NSUN and Mind, exploring how we create spaces to talk about self-harm online. Here, we have tried to summarise some of the key points, focussing on those we believe often get missed when thinking about facilitating online.
Online spaces differ from in-person events – they have what we call ‘hard edges’. You click ‘join’ and suddenly you are in the space, and when you click ‘leave’ it is over. It’s difficult to do all of the things you might do to show care in person – responding to body language, taking a person to one side to check in on them, having an informal chat over a cup of tea.
At Make Space we try to ‘soften’ some of these edges. One way we do this is by creating a decompression space at the end of each of our sessions where we (the facilitators) stay on the Zoom call for 30 minutes after the event finishes. The decompression time gives people a chance to hang out informally, to chat or to listen as we chat, and to slowly unwind from the potential intensity of the event. We have had good feedback that this is a useful transition.
Channels of communication: Working in a team
One of our greatest learnings about online facilitation is about the need to work in a team. Online facilitation is hard work, and requires you to do many things at once. For instance we try to make sure there are multiple channels of communication open during the event to give attendees every opportunity to raise anything that they’re worried about or need help with. We invite them to contact us either by personal message on zoom or by email. So throughout the event we need to be facilitating, sharing slides, monitoring the chat, checking our email inbox, and trying to make sure that all those attending our spaces are safe and ok.
The level of care we provide in each session is made possible by having two or three members of the team facilitating each event. When facilitating, we keep in touch with each other via a separate group chat so we can keep ourselves up to date and respond to any issues appropriately. Working as a group is not only practically helpful, but also helps us to feel more confident and comfortable holding these spaces and events.
We also offer 1:1 half-hour debrief sessions for participants at the end of each event. Sometimes this is with a therapist or mental health worker, and sometimes we offer a listening partnership with someone that works in peer support. This offers those joining our spaces a chance to decompress 1:1 and have some support grounding if something felt particularly difficult or was triggered in the session.
We pre-pay these sessions and give attendees the email address of the support worker so they can arrange support with them directly after the event. We budget this as one of our essential costs.
Getting clear on what the space is for
It is important to us to be explicit about the limits and intentions of the space. As a small team, there is only so much we can provide.
Many of these limits on the care we can provide are things we wish were otherwise. Rather than trying to mask over them, we are upfront before people begin sharing their vulnerabilities. Too often we realise that people cannot offer the care we want when it is too late. ] Instead, we try to make sure people understand what is on offer and can then use that information to make decisions about what would be best for them. This takes a few minutes to explain at the beginning of each session, but it is worth reiterating.
We always send a list of other useful resources by email, after our events. We recognise that part of the difficulty of doing work around self-harm that existing resources can do more harm than good. Because of this, we think carefully about these resources and try to ensure that we offer people options for nuanced care — foregrounding mutual aid, peer support, and non-statutory services that take non-pathologising approaches to supporting people with self-harm and/or emotional distress.
Holding self-harm lightly
Events and conversations around self-harm can often be cloaked in the seriousness and the gravity that people think might be appropriate to these kinds of conversations. This can create a sense of detachment from people’s experiences, forming barriers to the nuanced and caring conversations that we are trying to create. This may be especially true of online events, when it is easier to feel detached from the others in the space. We provide small moments in which we can hold self-harm lightly. One of our favourites is Zoomba (Zumba via Zoom). 30 seconds of ridiculous movement can shed some of the seriousness that these conversations might take on.
Commitment to complexity
Finally, while the suggestions above might all easily be applicable to facilitating any sensitive or complex conversations in an online space, there are also aspects to our broader approach to self-harm which we think are vital, no matter the form of the event.
At Make Space we hope to always frame discussions around self-harm in an awareness of complexity and a commitment to trust. We seek to respond to and honour the multiplicity and difference within people’s experiences of self-harm, without ever rushing to simplify or resolve complexity.
Our biggest learning with online facilitation, is that no matter how hard you try, life will happen. Often we turn up to an event with a neat plan and end up doing something different entirely. We have learned that people will make the session what they need it to be. Instead of worrying too much about how we can keep our events “on-track”, we focus on how we can create spaces for participants to express their wishes and their needs, and to respond meaningfully to them.
We trust people’s capacity to self-determine and to understand their own experiences: we never see our role as being to change people’s behaviour, but rather to promote connection and mutual respect. These principles may seem simple, but when it comes to self-harm they are also rare. We try to place them at the centre of everything we do, including how we facilitate online.