In this first of a two-part series, University of Roehampton researcher and friend of SWF James Butler discusses the challenges of taking discernment processes online. In part one, he explores how to have the conversation.
Owl photo by Richard Brooks
“Are you there? You seem to have frozen,” is a more familiar phrase than it might have been a few months ago. “I can hear you but I can’t see you!” Lockdown during the coronavirus has raised huge challenges for everyone. One particular challenge we have faced working in practical theology is how we take everything online and what that might mean for our methods and theology. These reflections I’m sharing here are the fruits of a conversation with a colleague, Helen Cameron, about these issues, particularly as they relate to the theological action research and the projects we are working on.
I am involved in two theological action research projects at the University of Roehampton, one looking at learning in the Methodist Church and the other exploring how Methodists and Catholics engage in social action together. The projects are led by Clare Watkins and in collaboration with the Susanna Wesley Foundation and the Southlands Methodist Trust. At the heart of theological action research are a number of key commitments. Two commitments that I want to particularly reflect on are, firstly, that at its heart theological action research is about discerning God’s action in the world; and secondly that a key way that discernment happens is through conversation. In this first post I will focus on having good conversation, and the second will explore some of the theological implications of the conversations being online and what it means for discernment. These posts are intended to ask some good questions and offer some reflections rather than to offer concrete answers. After all, at the heart of any type of action research is the need to try it and reflect on it, not just theorise about it. But what might be helpful to think through beforehand?
Theological action research is committed to conversations: conversations when planning the research; conversations when collecting the data, particularly through interviews and focus groups; conversations when reflecting on the data and identifying the learning. These conversations have nearly always been face-to-face. In fact, in our projects, we have spent a lot of time on trains to make sure these conversations happen in person rather than online.
So what happens to these conversation when they move online? How does Zoom change the nature of the conversation?
The most obvious way it changes is that you are staring at a screen and not actually present with them in the room. Everyone has a very different context: some might be in a spacious home office, where others might be in a cramped kitchen being used by other people. There are more subtle differences too; you would be unlikely to be staring at the faces of everyone in the group all the time if you were meeting in person. Zoom gives you a lot less information about body language and you are even more reliant on what people say so it’s harder to get non-verbal feedback about what you are saying. You are also more likely to interrupt each other or talk over each other accidentally. Everyone has different distractions and interruptions, and internet connections mean that people come and go, or can’t hear properly.
Some of these issues can be reduced with some planning. How familiar are participants with online meetings? Probably more so now than before lockdown. But what kinds of meetings are they used to? Efficient business meetings, family chats? If ours are to be reflective conversations there might need to be some setting of expectations and facilitation. Testing the technology and practising having a conversation about something inconsequential a few days before might be an option. In addition, where we would normally run focus groups for between 5 and 12 people in person, we think that needs to be capped at five or six people. This will mean fewer people to keep track of, and bigger pictures of them on the screen. One other tip I’ve found very helpful is encourage participants to turn off their own image on their own screen and do the same yourself. Who looks at themselves during a meeting? Imagine if everyone had a mirror in front of themselves in a normal focus group!
A key feature of the focus group is the interaction between people and how the conversation develops within the group. In person this often happens quite naturally and needs little facilitation other than keeping them on track and allowing quieter people to make their point, but online this may need more careful facilitation. How can you make sure everyone speaks? How can you make sure people are given the opportunity to respond to what is said? Facilitating this might mean introducing pauses into the conversation for people to stop and think. It might mean encouraging them to make notes as they go which they can share with you. It might mean having them type topics or questions into the chat feature which they want to return to talk about. Of course one or two voices dominating a conversation can be disruptive, but rigid facilitation can also restrict a conversation. For this reason choosing people who already know each other is going to be hugely beneficial. So far the only Zoom interviews I’ve carried out have been me talking to two people about their friendship. These have worked very smoothly; they picked up on each other’s cues and weren’t phased by interrupting each other accidentally.
As I say this first post is about some of the practical implications for good conversation. Online focus groups will likely need more planning, careful consideration of participants, trial runs to check the technology, agreed ways of interacting and using some of the additional feature like chat and whiteboard. The next post will think about some of the theological questions.