This article was originally published on August 24, 2018 and updated on December 8, 2019.
So many of us are having our meetings, our therapy sessions, our classes and our family get-togethers online. The online environment is so convenient, and helps connect us wherever we are on the globe. And, as with all communication, there is the potential to miscommunicate, even to contribute to someone else feeling shame online.
Part of what contributes to shame is not feeling seen and not feeling heard. If I feel I don’t matter to the group of people I’m with, it could lead me to believe that I am expendable, that I am not a valuable member of the community. Shame is the feeling that I am somehow flawed and unlovable – if I feel unseen and unheard, my brain might deduce that I’m also unlovable and at risk of being kicked out of the group.
There are some ways we can be in community with each other that help us to not contribute to someone else feeling shame. Here are some suggestions for ways of being during online groups (especially if you’re the one holding the space) to contribute to folks feeling seen and heard:
Setting the space:
- Being very clear on time zone conversions – making it as easy as possible for folks to get to the meeting on time wherever they are in the world;
- Making an effort to learn how to pronounce folks’ names correctly;
- Holding some kind of ritual opening of the online space, as well as some kind of closing (this might be as simple as spending a little time greeting each other and saying good-bye to each other);
- Allowing your attendees to exit the meeting before you rather than ending a meeting abruptly for everyone.
- Avoiding looking at the clock on your computer while someone is speaking in case they interpret that as your impatience and unwillingness to see and hear them;
- Erring in the side of a slightly happy and inviting facial expression (to encourage attunement and safety) rather than a blank expression;
- Wearing appropriate on-screen clothing (being distracted by inappropriate clothing might make someone feel awkward and unwelcome);
- There’s no need to look straight into the camera – this might even feel a little intimidating for some folks who prefer to not feel as if they are being looked straight at. Keeping your eyes in the screen rather than moving your attention off screen is respectful, but as an online community we’ve become accustomed to our fellow community-members directing their gaze toward their own screen rather than to their camera.
Holding the group in compassion:
- Bringing a lot of patience to technology glitches and slow internet speeds;
- Thanking people for sharing;
- Acknowledging courage and vulnerability when group members share;
- Avoiding assuming you know someone’s gender, age, health status, religion, culture, sexuality, body type, family situation, home environment, or personal story by how they appear to you on screen;
- Acknowledging pets, children and other loved ones who you see on screen needing participants’ attention during a get-together;
- If you feel that someone feels hesitant about having permission to speak more, inviting, “Is there more?” – giving folks the opportunity to feel seen and heard until they feel complete in their sharing;
- Allowing folks to be vague about details like where they live (to help with safety);
- Being very patient with language barriers, even inviting someone to share in their mother tongue if they cannot express themselves in the language you are holding space in. If you can’t understand their words, at least you can get a sense of the emotion and meaning behind their sharing, and you are giving them the opportunity to express themselves;
- Avoiding assuming that everyone is in the same country you are in.
Using technology respectfully:
- Taking the time to address chat board offerings and emails from group members that arrive during the meeting, even if it means letting the group know that you need a minute to tend to those;
- If you run out of time for sharing, offering some other way folks might share (chat box, private email etc);
- When you need to mute someone (eg if there is background noise from their environment while someone else is sharing or during a period of contemplation), letting them know why so that they understand why there was a choice made for the group that might have taken choice away from them;
- If you need to be busy on screen (eg shutting down applications on your computer to assist with your internet speed), let folks know why you are preoccupied in that moment and why your eyes are moving around on your screen during sharing;
- When someone is having difficulties with technology, addressing any difficulties through your overt care and concern for them. When we connect with someone in their difficulty, it helps them to not feel so alone. We might do this by offering things like, “I’m sorry we can’t see you,” “We miss you,” “I’m sorry your technology is letting you down,” or “Let us know what we can do to help.”
In the end, we can’t know everything that might lead to folks feeling shame in the online environment, but we can do our best to help avoid shaming others. Holding a space that is as safe as possible means that when folks do feel shame, hopefully they are able to bring that to the space holder’s attention as a way to help process the emotions from the situation. The safer the space, the more courageous folks are invited to feel in sharing. When a space holder allows themselves to be vulnerable, it offers permission for others to express vulnerability. Shame can be contagious, but courage is as well. We can all support each other in bringing our most courageous and shame-resilient selves to our online gatherings.
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