This blog post is a long time coming. People often ask me for written references to the material that we cover in our workshops. Hopefully, this post will serve as a reference that anybody can use to deliver a more powerful group experience online.
In this post we’ll explore the building blocks of a transformational learning experience. We’ll start by clarifying exactly what we mean by “transformational”, then we’ll cover the benefits and application of transformational learning experiences, and finally we’ll explore an extensive list of specific techniques and approaches you can apply to create a transformational learning experience in your own work.
We started Sutra to cultivate deeper levels of awareness and connection through impactful group learning experiences. Since then Sutra has supported tens of thousands of people participating in group experiences online. We’ve also directly worked with hundreds of individuals and organizations to help them design experiences that invite meaningful connection and conversation. This post will attempt to share much of what we’ve learned.
What is a transformational experience?
Our definition of a transformational experience is that it is something that becomes available in a space where people become deeply present to themselves and each other.
This presence occurs on an infinite spectrum. It is not a one time event or destination, but rather an ever broadening horizon. It involves becoming increasingly aware of what’s in the space of personal experience – thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. And becoming aware of what’s in the space of shared experience – surfacing what’s unspoken but communicated anyway, sensing others and the space.
This quality of presence can be cultivated in any context. The content of the experience does not have to be about personal transformation or mindfulness. The content of the experience can be about organizational design, marketing, permaculture, or anything else. What makes the experience transformational is how people show up – their way of being with each other.
People yearn for authentic connection. They yearn to be seen, respected, felt and cared for. When these attributes become present, something new emerges. People are able to relax in a way that frees up a lot of energy and they become increasingly available to insight and discovery.
What’s possible with online learning?
When it comes to online learning there’s a broad spectrum of what learning can look like. On one side of the spectrum you have self-paced “evergreen” experiences. These are experiences where a person signs up and goes through a learning experience on their own, whenever they want, at their own pace.
At the other end of the spectrum you have a more involved group experience where participants go through a course together and there’s emphasis on the quality of connection and conversation that participants experience. This side of the spectrum is what we’re talking about when we refer to a “transformational” experience.
In between, you might have self paced experiences that also offer access to a discussion forum or Facebook group where people can ask questions and have conversation. In this context, it’s important to understand that there’s a difference between activity and intimacy. You might have a Facebook group where there’s a lot of people posting messages (lots of “activity”), but nobody really knows each other (no “intimacy”).
Neither side of the spectrum is better or worse. It’s just helpful to understand exactly what you want to create. In an evergreen online learning experience you’re optimizing just for content transfer. In a transformational group experience you’re optimizing for both content and connection. You care about the way that people show up and the quality of interaction that occurs between people, and all of this is part of the overall design process.
Working with awareness online
So, how exactly do you invite meaningful connection and conversation in an online environment? Much of what we share revolves around working with awareness. By inviting deeper awareness of self and other, we create the conditions for meaningful connection to emerge. One way to do this, particularly online, is through conversation.
Creating a “transformational” experience online is about designing a series of conversations where people can discover something for themselves, as a direct experience, through each other. As part of this process, you’re continually finding the right balance between what you put into the conversation and how you enroll people to contribute.
In this context, your participants are not just consumers of information. They are co-creators of the experience. They are participating in making it what it is. You’re inviting people to bring the full spectrum of their awareness into the conversation. As they explore the subject at hand, they might notice physical sensations in their body, emotions that come up, or thoughts that emerge. All of this is data that communicates something about the subject being explored. And this information has even more meaning when it is shared and becomes part of a collective dialogue process.
Approaches to transformational experience design
Creating an experience like this can be a multi-layered and iterative process. There is no one size fits all approach and how this works will be different with every community and body of work. We often advise people to keep things simple and prototype. Start with a small group and iterate from there. Below are some considerations to help you along the way.
Prototype, prototype, prototype
A prototype is a way of learning by doing. You might have an intention and a sense of something you can try to move towards an outcome that you desire. The key with a prototype is that you actually take action and you remember that it’s a prototype. This means that you find a simple way to move forward and learn. And, if something doesn’t work the way you expect, you learn from that and try something new.
If a prototype doesn’t work out the way that you expect it to, it can be tempting to feel a sense of failure. With a prototype there is no failure. There is just data to learn from. Understanding this and holding the experience lightly, will inform your course creation process with tremendous real world intelligence.
A transformational experience is a living thing. It is transformational because it invites the authenticity of each participant. For the same reason, what happens is not entirely predictable. In a sense, you’re always prototyping and trying to remain receptive to what wants to emerge. This same dynamic keeps it real for your participants and gives them a sense of co-creative ownership in the process.
Just remember, if you’re not sure how something will work, learn what you can, start simple and just do it. Then repeat this cycle over and over. That’s the power of prototyping.
The first week
If you are running a multi week program, the most important part of that program is the first week. This is where you create the container, establish the group agreements, share expectations, and set the tone and precedent for how the course will progress. If you don’t get it right the first week, it’s unlikely to get better.
During the first week you want to have an opening call and get momentum going in the online discussion space. First week assignments should revolve around sharing introductions and intentions. Invite people to share something that is meaningful but also easy for them to share.
Ask people to reflect on each other’s posts and be active in your own participation. Give assignments that everyone can complete and feel good about.
Your first call should begin to establish a space where people feel safe to make mistakes and be vulnerable. We think about this as “warming up the space”. How are you inviting people to relax and share themselves authentically in a way that feels natural and organic? If you’re not exactly sure how to do this, remember that this is exactly what prototyping is for. You might invite participants to share a personal story about why they are here or experiment with some other activity that feels relevant in your context. The key is to learn and keep iterating.
Scheduling video calls
One of the biggest challenges with group calls is scheduling. If you’re running a multi-week course, remember to schedule all your calls in advance and let people know about the schedule before they register. Consider if you want to make the calls mandatory, and if so, request that people not register if they cannot commit to the call schedule. Depending on the context of your experience this may or may not be appropriate. If you’re finding people are not showing up for your calls, it’s helpful to examine the communication and expectations that you’ve offered around the experience.
Working with small groups
Part of working with intimacy is creating conditions that naturally support its emergence. It’s difficult to be “intimate” with 100 people or even with 30 people. It’s much easier to develop meaningful and deep relationships with 5 to 8 people.
Depending on how many people you have registering for your course, you might consider breaking up into small groups. You can still run a zoom call with everyone on one call. But you might organize your online environment around small groups of 5 to 10 people (small sidenote: we designed Sutra to make this super easy). You want a number that is small enough so that each person has a chance to speak, feels heard, and has the capacity to hear what every other person has shared.
If you think about this, you’ll realize that it only works up to a certain number of people. Much more than 10 people and it’s hard to make time for each person to share. If everybody in the group starts sharing in a meaningful way, then it’s hard to stay on top of what everybody has shared. The volume of content is simply overwhelming.
In our Transformational Teaching Online program we’ve experimented with all sorts of different group sizes over many cohorts. We’ve found that the nuances of finding the right group size can be subtle and complex. For example, if you have groups of five and one or two people drop off, then there’s a high probability that the remaining group will be a little deflated and not engage. On the other hand, if you have a group of twelve, you might find there’s a lot of sharing and activity, but at some point the content becomes overwhelming and people disengage because they can’t keep up with the conversation. The best approach is to prototype across different cohorts to find what works best in your context.
Creating the right container
People often ask: what is a container? A container makes explicit the context of an interaction. This context has many layers to it, both conscious and unconscious. Creating a container is a process of articulating those layers in a way that shapes and supports what will happen inside the experience that you are offering. This is a conversational process that influences how a situation occurs to people and how they see themselves in that situation, which influences how they show up.
Although much of the container creation process happens at the beginning of an experience, the container is something that is continually built through the process of the experience itself and each time your group comes together.
Below are some guiding questions that you can consider as you design the container for your experience:
What’s your intention and why are we here?
Take a moment at the beginning of every call to speak about the reason that people are coming together. While this may seem obvious, it’s helpful to make sure that everybody is on the same page.
What’s on the agenda?
What will people learn, what activities will they engage in, what will the schedule look like, what kind of time commitment will it take? Part of the enrollment process is making sure that people are very clear on exactly what’s being asked and offered. The more sensitive an experience might be, the more important it is to make sure people are not surprised.
What future are we creating?
People may be coming from many different walks of life, with different orientations, motivations, and aspirations. Having a conversation about the future helps to converge people around something that is meaningful to everybody. It also invites participants to recognize that this is something everybody involved is creating together.
What is unspoken but communicated anyway?
Many situations involve factors which are present but not spoken about. Sometimes these factors influence the way that people engage in undesirable or unconscious ways. When these elements can be surfaced in a way that they become present for all people, a new way of being becomes possible because people can make a more conscious choice about how they will show up in the presence of these factors.
What are the agreements and expectations that we need for this journey?
Certain agreements may be offered by the space holder and others may be suggested by participants. Often there’s a combination of both. For longer experiences, it’s helpful to spend time on an extended activity to surface agreements and expectations together so that people feel like they are part of the process. Often, the process of creating the agreements is just as important as the agreements themselves.
What are we committed to?
A transformational learning experience is more than just content. It often involves connection, conversation, and discovery, over time. This kind of journey can take a certain investment of time and energy. It’s important that people understand the commitment involved and why it’s meaningful to them so that they can give the process the attention that it deserves. Creating a conversation about commitment is also part of surfacing what’s unspoken but communicated anyway. It offers participants a more conscious and intentional relationship with how they show up in the space.
A transformational experience is a participatory process where people have an opportunity to discover something for themselves.
If you’re an expert in your field, it might be tempting to offer people the wealth of your knowledge through a long Zoom lecture. This might be appropriate sometimes but, more often than not, it misses an opportunity for participants to share their experience of the content. If you can pre-record something (like a 60 minute lecture) then why spend precious time together on a video call having a one way conversation?
You want to find the right balance between what you share and what people contribute. This creates an opportunity for participants to co-create the experience with you and discover something for themselves in the process. We call this planting a seed in the space of shared awareness. You put just the right amount of content into the space for people to begin to explore their relationship with that content in a meaningful way. Then that exploration becomes the catalyst for conversation and shared understanding.
Working with stillness
Taking a moment to notice what’s coming up for you is at the heart of cultivating deeper awareness. Stillness offers an opportunity for participants to pause and notice their thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations.
Working with stillness online can feel awkward at first – a bunch of people sitting on a zoom call doing… nothing. Each minute can feel like forever. But stillness gives people an opportunity to give space to what wants to emerge. It allows them to notice themselves in the context of the information being shared and their relationship with that information in a deep way.
Creating a conversation that invites people to share what came up in their stillness is a powerful way to build intimacy and coherence in the group space.
Bringing embodied awareness into the process
When people come together there can often be a natural shyness about the space. People are naturally guarded. One of the most powerful ways of warming up the space is to work with embodied practices.
Your felt sense of being is incredibly intimate, yet it is something we rarely bring awareness to and almost never share. Bringing this into a conversational context can be a powerful way to invite intimacy and create connection.
The body is ground zero for your experience of self. Your physical sensations are always present with you in the present moment. They are never in the future or the past. They’re here right now and they often go unnoticed. Bringing awareness to the body, noticing what might be arising, is a simple way to invite presence. Sharing this with others is surprisingly intimate. It offers an effective way to invite relational presence and bypass all sorts of mental filters that might keep us from connecting with others in a meaningful way.
There are all sorts of embodied practices that you can research and bring into the mix. You can try something like Social Presencing Theater from the Presencing Institute. You can also play a fun song and dance. Or take a moment of stillness to notice physical sensations. Or try some improv practice. What feels right is going to vary depending on what’s appropriate for your context and the best way to figure that out is to prototype different approaches.
Finding the right rhythm and pacing
People often wonder whether it’s possible to create a truly meaningful and transformational experience online. In our experience, it’s absolutely possible. It’s just a matter of understanding how to work with what’s there in the online space. In person, you might have people’s undivided attention for hours at a time in an environment that you control. Online, people are joining you from all over the world, from a space that might have all sorts of distractions, on a device that might have all sorts of distractions.
One of the key factors to designing an engaging experience is thinking through the right rhythm and pacing of your video calls. You want to find the right balance between what you share and how you engage people. This might involve inviting them to post in the chat, connect with someone in a breakout room, do some kind of embodied activity, do some journaling, have a moment of stillness, or some other kind of activity.
One of the biggest differences between online and in person is that you’ll want to keep your timing much tighter and the pacing just a little faster than you might in person. What feels comfortable is really up to you to discover because it’s going to depend a lot on the context and content of your experience. There’s no right or wrong way to do this. Rather than trying to figure out the perfect way to do it, it’s best to intentionally experiment with different approaches and notice what feels better for you.
Bringing attention to the “space”
The “space” of an experience is something to be continually discovered. This discovery is a personal process and can be difficult to convey in words. The space is the context within which something happens and there are many layers to this context. It might include our physical environment, our mental, emotional, and embodied experience, the group’s relational dynamics, and, at the deepest level, simply the space of our awareness that contains all those other attributes.
Presence is the process by which we cultivate the capacity to discern more subtle nuances within the space of our awareness. Becoming aware that there is a space of awareness that contains within it the attributes of our experience is a big part of the transformational journey. Inviting people to notice this space in a collective context creates an experience of relational coherence.
The “intelligence” of the space is a function of being receptive to all the information that is available. This information includes attributes of what you are thinking, feeling, and sensing as well as what your intuition might be suggesting. Taking a moment of stillness to notice this information and offering an opportunity for people to share what’s present for them often generates unexpected insight and understanding.
Use an online platform to support the experience
An online group experience often has lots of moving parts. You have zoom calls, emails, content, and a desire to connect and communicate outside of video calls. You might also have small groups and personal assignments. Sometimes, your experience emerges as it goes and you want a place where you can easily save zoom recordings and add additional materials as they come up in the context of your interactions. How do you manage all this in one place?
We might be biased, but this is exactly what we designed Sutra for. Sutra is designed to support highly emergent and conversational group learning experiences. It offers you one place to host content and conversation. You can post your zoom recordings and easily update content as you go. You can organize people into small group discussion spaces. And you can send out email broadcasts to everybody in your program. You can also create a beautiful registration page for your offering and collect money when people register.
The right online environment will make your life easier and will offer a home for your participants to connect with each other and find everything they need in one place.