“We’ve been offsite for so long now, most of us have never even met each other in-person,” said Tom.

He was sharing his experiences with virtual trainings and events with me, and he confessed that as he’s looking around for a new job, now that so many companies are all remote, he’s not finding it very motivating.

“How are people going to collaborate together and not feel isolated?” he wondered aloud.

It’s a valid question.

But the truth is, I’ve had deeply connected online relationships since the internet was in its infancy.

Back in the 90s, one of my closest friends was a fellow calligrapher I met through the CyberScribes listserv.

Our relationship was conducted entirely online, first in messages on the listserv, then in emails.

We soon started speaking on the phone. And eventually I did fly across the country to meet her in-person, but as she was on the opposite coast, we rarely saw each other in the flesh. Ours was primarily a digital relationship.

More recently, I joined an online community of business owners. There’s an active forum, with weekly, monthly, and quarterly virtual events.

I’ve gotten close with other members, some of whom I’ve met in-person at conferences, or meeting for lunch or coffee, but others I’ve only ever met online.

It’s true that meeting in-person can accelerate closeness and connection, but closeness and connection, and even intimacy, are not dependent on in-person meetings.

So what’s the key, then?

It’s not physical location but mutual vulnerability that fosters closeness.

According to psychologist Arthur Aron, “One key pattern associated with the development of a close relationship among peers is sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personal self-disclosure.”

Aron, along with his team, developed a study that explored whether intimacy between two strangers can be accelerated by having them ask each other a specific set of personal questions.* The questions are broken up into three sets, each set more probing then the previous one.

Sustained, escalating, reciprocal self-disclosure explains why, if you join a group but never participate, you always feel on the outside of the group. But if you get involved, if you share, you’ll start to feel more connected to others who are also sharing.

It’s human nature.

And it works just the same in virtual settings as it does in-person.

In fact, I’ve even experienced interpersonal closeness in virtual conferences on platforms like Crowdcast, where participants can ONLY interact via chat, where part of the culture is an expectation that we WILL interact in the chat, sharing our wins, our ideas, and even our “jumbled thoughts.” It’s amazing how much you can get to know someone in a one-hour conference session when they share their jumbled thoughts in chat!

That said, as an experience designer, I’m a big fan of platforms like Zoom, where you can use breakout rooms to send people off in pairs and trios for intimate, “face-to-face” discussions. This allows for the kind of sustained, escalating, reciprocal self-disclosure that can develop close relationships among peers, whether it’s a one-off session or a multi-week class.

And when play is woven into the session design, it increases trust, bonding, social interaction, sense of solidarity, and a decreased sense of hierarchy. Plus play is our brain’s favorite way to learn!

So yes, not only is it possible to connect virtually, when virtual trainings and events are designed creatively and thoughtfully, they can be powerful connection incubators for participants.

As with everything virtual, it’s all about good design and preparation.

Would you like to set up your attendees for success? Looking to transform your virtual training or event into a creative, interactive, playful experience your attendees will rave about? Let’s chat!

*Here are the 36 questions from Aron’s study.


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