Experience a Virtual Group
Find out what all the excitement is about.
Eavesdrop on a virtual group by dialing 1.212.990.6881.
(The call is free; only long-distance charges apply.) Hear MentorCoach Founder & CEO Ben
Dean, Ph.D., Master Certified Coach, lead an introductory virtual group
for twelve therapists, all meeting by telephone on a teleconference call.
Call anytime, night or day, to be a fly on the wall at this
initial virtual meeting.
Virtual Coaching Groups--Their Power and Magic
by Ben Dean, Ph.D.,
Master Certified Coach
Founder & CEO, MentorCoach
Virtual coaching groups--groups of geographically separated clients united
by a live, interactive phone teleconference--have a magic and power that
more than compensates for the loss of visual information. Not only do they
make excellent business sense for any clinician contemplating a coaching
practice but virtual groups are the very heart of the MentorCoach Program.
All our classes are all conducted utilizing this format and we know from
many years experience, that the learning experience and connection our
students experience is powerful. Let me walk you through what virtual groups
are and how they can be applied.
"Face-To-Face" Versus "Virtual" Communication. When
you communicate with individuals or groups in your office, you are
working "face-to-face." When you communicate with individuals
or groups at a distance (for example, by telephone or phone teleconferences,
FAX, E-mail, and, in time, videoconferencing), you are working "virtually."
"Virtual" Coaching. Virtual
coaching is coaching delivered at a distance. Most virtual coaching
relationships are not transacted on the Internet. They are transacted
by telephone. Though there may be between-session communication by
E-mail, fax, and surface mail, it is the live, interactive relationship
of the telephone that is essential. In time, telephone coaching will
be supplanted by low-cost videophones and videoconferencing.
"Virtual" Groups. For
our purposes, a virtual group (or v-group) is a group of geographically
dispersed people who are united as a "virtual" group via
a live, interactive audio (or phone) teleconference. Each member of
the group can hear and be heard by every other member. Groups can also
be united in live, real-time (or near-real-time) interaction by videoconferencing
or E-mail chat rooms.
Structure of a V-Group. An example.
Imagine coaching a group of ten ice cream storeowners. (This v-group
example could as easily be comprised of stockbrokers, writers, clinicians
interested in forensic psychology, etc.) Imagine these ten individuals
live in ten states and meet with you for an hour by telephone on the
second and fourth Tuesday morning of the month at 10:00 a.m., Eastern
Time. The group is open-ended, not time-limited. Members come and go
over time; though, as in a therapy group, they bond with you and with
each other and tend to stay in the group. Each is guaranteed there
will be no local competitor in the group. The agenda could be coaching
group members around all the issues of running their businesses. You
are providing them with peer supervision, your own growing expertise,
and a 24/7 between-session group list server. You are offering this
to them with great efficiency-no travel, no dressing for success. They
simply close their door, pick up the phone, and they're in your v-group.
Fee Structure. If you bill this
v-group of ice cream storeowners at $150 per month, you generate $75
per hour per client. Ten clients generate $750 per hour. Fourteen clients
generate more than $1000 per hour. Twenty generate $1500 per hour.
And so on.
Group Size. Size varies with the
v-group's purpose and with your own inclinations. I have conducted
v-groups for doctoral candidates that I limited in size to three or
four members because I wanted to give them individual attention in
each session. I have a client who has successfully conducted 12-week
training v-groups of 80 to 90 members (receiving high evaluations from
the participants). For theme-oriented v-groups, a good size is often
15 to 25 members.
Types of V-Groups. V-Groups can
be created around almost any coaching need. I know of coaching v-groups
comprised of stock brokers, dentists, psychologists, parents of ADHD
children, doctoral candidates, therapists, attorneys, academicians,
small business owners by niche, midlife women making transitions, students
seeking clinical internships, high school students attempting to get
into Ivy League colleges, retirees, career changers, etc.
Audio Teleconferencing. Audio
teleconferencing (teleconferencing transacted by telephone) can be
distinguished from videoconferencing (teleconferencing transacted by
videophone or with a video component). It is now available inexpensively
(Dean, 1999e). For information on low-cost teleconference bridge suppliers,
see the Resources section.
What Makes V-Groups Thrive
As I write this, we have just completed a v-group that has been meeting
for 18 months. The v-group ended in order that we might form a new v-group
at a new time by merging with two other v-groups. During our final call,
we processed what it was like to be ending after so much time together.
We had many feelings as we said "goodbye" to this small, very
safe group of old friends. One member said that joining the larger group
felt like moving from the safety of grade school to be with the new, strange
kids in seventh grade. Others remembered the times we had shared the triumphs
and stubbed toes. One member, sharing something personal, began to cry-the
first tears in our group since we began. I felt enormously touched and
close to her as, I believe, did others.
Concluding the v-group underlined for me what I know in my bones-v-groups
can be powerful, engaging instruments of shared support and change. I believe
a key element in creating effective v-groups-much like face-to-face groups-is
creating a space of safety and closeness where real learning can take place.
A face-to-face group is almost always more powerful than a v-group using
the telephone. But a face-to-face vs. v-group comparison is usually not
a valid comparison. V-groups allow communication between members spread
throughout the world. And they allow much, much more efficient communication
because they don't require travel to a single location. Thus the true comparison
is not virtual versus face-to-face. It's virtual versus nothing. If the
group had to meet live and in person, it would not exist. Instead, a virtual
community is created which can be extraordinarily productive and rewarding.
Further, v-group members often report additional benefits of their virtual
experiences. Some members find a v-group experience to be a more intimate
experience than in-person groups. Part of this may be that there is something
deeply intimate about listening intently, perhaps with a cordless telephone
headset with each speaker's voice perfectly audible, coming almost from
inside your head. Part of this is the freedom-to stretch, to make tea,
to walk in circles, to move from your couch to your deck-while remaining
absorbed in the group's conversation. Part of this may be the I-can-be-in-my-jeans
factor. Members experience less concern about superficialities of appearance.
People are judged by their ideas rather than their physical attractiveness.
Some report that there is something about the anonymity of the medium that
helps them be more candid and, perhaps, more intimate. And, with the v-groups
with which I'm involved, many of the participants are extremely bright,
high-powered, successful people. Group members quickly realize this. While
they do not get physically dressed up, they mentally treat each session
as a special event
and are more excited about the meetings. Indeed,
some participants say that the enthusiasm and energy levels of v-groups
make face-to-face groups seem boring.
In short, v-groups have a power and magic of their own that can more than
compensate for the loss of visual information.
An example. In a recent MentorCoach Program, we brought together 37 clinicians
from throughout the US. To be precise, we had 30 psychologists and 7 clinicians,
sociologists, and ABDs (social workers, marriage and family therapists,
two clinical psychology ABDs, and one PhD consultant). Our live, virtual
meetings by audio teleconference took place with members located in 32
cities and 17 states ranging from Albany, NY to Sausalito, CA and Excelsior,
Minnesota to Sugarland, Texas. The virtual coaching gave them access to
a nationwide network of like-minded professionals wanting to form a supportive
learning community that would not be available just where they live.
I'm still new at this. But I've now led around two to three hundred hours
of v-groups. Here are some of the observations I have so far on what works:
A Live, Real-time Experience is Key to Virtual
Coaching. A national or international v-group would
not work without regular, live, real-time communication among group
members. Each Wednesday at either 11 a.m. or 1 p.m. Eastern Time,
we come together in a virtual classroom. This is not done on the
Internet. It's done by telephone. So whether class members are
at home, at the office, on their sailboat (which has happened)
or traveling, they can pick up the phone for an hour and join our
group. If you would like to hear an example of how this is done,
see the Resources section at the end of this article.
Audio Tape Backup Helps. We tape
every class. When members have inevitable conflicts and miss class,
they can still hear a tape and feel connected. While taping increases
the risk of breaching confidentiality, v-group members take very seriously
their pledge to keep all information shared on the class or on tape
confidential, just as they would in a therapy group. Though we cannot
guarantee confidentiality, any more than one can guarantee it in a
therapy group, we have so far had no violations.
A Class List Server is a Lifeline. A
key in building ongoing communication within a class is a 24/7 list
server, quite similar to the Division 42 list server. Thus any E-mail
sent to a common address is immediately sent to all class members.
Members use this to ask questions, share resources, complain, share
all the usual forms of communication that exist in any
Private E-mail Helps. Needless
to say, ongoing group members frequently carry on private E-mail conversations,
which deepen connections as well.
Group Members Need Support. Developing
a coaching practice is scary, out-of-your-comfort-zone work. Providing
support is vital to many of the group members. While some students
don't need this, many do. In each coaching program, I have two student-facilitated
virtual support groups that meet by audio teleconference. Every support
group has a core group of participants and reports that their virtual
meetings have been enormously valuable.
Collaboration Gives the Group an Extra Benefit. Collaboration
between members is always encouraged. All class members are encouraged
to pair off with a virtual buddy. Many do. For example, psychologists
Bill Benninger of Columbus, OH and Alan Graham of Des Plaines, IL are
nationally recognized ADHD experts. They met in the larger v-group,
did a virtual pilot program together, and have joined forces to provide
virtual coaching for parents of children and teenagers with ADHD. To
see their growing collaborative work, visit www.ADDvisor.com/.
A Private Web Site Fosters Connections. The
class has its own confidential website with photographs of class members
and their significant others and pets. When group members meet "live" at
a conference, they often take group photographs and post them to the
Bonus Meetings Help the Group Receive More
Than Expected. Communities grow in part as a function
of frequency of contact. In addition to our regularly scheduled
classes, the class has bonus meetings in which guest experts are
brought in. In August, sitting on a dock of a beautiful lake in
upstate New York, I was part of a v-group in which one of the top
virtual coaches in the world (one who will gross $700,000 this
year) outlined the steps for building a successful coaching practice.
It brought community, inspiration, and new ideas to our group.
Encourage Sharing of Drafts. One
of the most common uses of the list server is to ask for margin comments
on writing and to solicit advice in dealing with problems. The Division
42 list server is probably too large to do this. But with a class membership
of a few dozen, it is not overwhelming to have members post entire
drafts of promotional copy or proposed articles. Then the group, as
a whole, works to help members asking for help. And, just as valuable,
everyone gets to see the answers.
Create a One-For-All-and-All-For-One Atmosphere
of Mutual Support. A key that any experienced group
facilitator understands is building an atmosphere of safety and
cooperation. This is especially critical on the list server and
on the actual v-groups. Key elements of this are that no ad hominem
criticism of fellow group members is allowed. (I will "fire" someone
from the group before I will allow that to happen.) And everything
possible is done to encourage support rather than competition or
criticism. The ways to do this are no doubt familiar to you. This
is particularly important in a group where potentially, people
could develop competitive national coaching practices. One thing
that helps is encouraging a norm on the list server of responding
briefly to each other's posts. As in "Jack, your feedback
on this is brilliant. Wow."
Meet Face-to-Face When Possible. Again,
all things being equal, face-to-face meetings are richer and more nuanced
than virtual meetings. Whenever possible we encourage group members
to meet live. Six of us met for the first time in Boston at APA for
dinner on Saturday night. Inevitably there is a brief shock when you
put together the person's voice with their real-world body. But it
deepens connections and can, in turn, be shared with others on the
next v-group meeting.
Group Facilitation Skills Are Key. In
a later article, I will focus on how to lead the v-group itself. This
is, of course, a central piece in creating a powerful experience for
v-group members. It includes how the one-hour call is structured; the
importance of maximizing group participation on the calls; the deadly
impact of teacher-to-student lecturing; ways to make the members themselves
the teachers; ways to make individual members the "star" of
a given call; how to make your points "from the inside out," that
is, by eliciting the points from the shared life experience of group
members so they feel empowered, not lectured to; the importance of "pace" and "dead
air." This is the fun part of having a v-group practice. And it
is one to which all your face-to-face skills will easily transfer.
Coming Changes in Virtual Coaching
"One-to-one, personal videoconferencing
is an area that
going to explode pretty rapidly
start to see group videoconferencing
in three or four years."
-Bill Gates (July/August, 1999)
I have been a Washington Redskins football fan for decades and have been
with them through the high times and, more recently, through the low. And
yet I have never attended a single football game. My relationship has been
entirely virtual, primarily mediated by television. I believe that connection
is a thousand times more intense than it would have been had I only had
access to that virtual relationship through radio. So much more can be
communicated when visual information is included.
While I know that v-group and individual coaching is surprisingly powerful
in its current auditory form, I believe its power will be transformed with
the advent of low cost video conferencing. Reasonably low cost one-to-one
videoconferencing is already here. My colleague, psychologist Robert Shapiro
regularly works virtually with geographically distant clients using one-to-one
videoconferencing. How long until true low-cost group videoconferencing
is available? Microsoft, for one, is working on it and Gates believes it
is only three to four years away (Gates, 1999). When it arrives, it will
dramatically change the way personal services can be delivered-on a global
scale. Those of us who are developing and providing virtual audio groups
not only are helping our clients now-we are also positioned to move quickly
into the coming world of videoconferencing.
A V-Group Experience. If you would like to be a fly on the wall
during a v-group (a tape recorded initial audio teleconference meeting
of 12 clinicians discussing virtual coaching), call 212.990.6881 (24/7).
Low-Cost Audio Teleconference Suppliers. Audio teleconferencing
is now low cost and takes place on "meet-me" teleconference bridges.
The "bridge" is usually a piece of software in a telephone company
switching office. You are given a phone number. When one person calls the
bridge number, you hear the phone ringing. When two or more people call
that same number, a "bridge" is created and they are connected.
This type of audio teleconferencing-rather than operator assisted teleconferencing-is
what I recommend you use for your v-groups. It is relatively inexpensive.
For example, a weekly one-hour audio teleconference call for 150 people
in 150 locations throughout the world can be had for $30 per hour or less
on a 150-person teleconference bridge. By contrast, the same conference
call supplied with operator assistance by AT&T might cost $6000 for
each one-hour call. A 30-person teleconference bridge may be rented for
as little as $10 per hour (or $900 unlimited use for a year). You pay for
the teleconference bridge. Each caller pays for a normal long-distance
call into the bridge. There are many suppliers offering teleconference
bridge lines including Eagle Teleconferencing www.eagle.net;
Hilton Johnson Productions www.mlmu.com or www.salesacademy.com;
and Telebridge Teleconferencing www.telebridge.com.
Dean, B. (1998). The psychologist as virtual coach. The Independent Practitioner,
18 (4), 188-189.
Dean, B. (1999a). The All-But-Dissertation Survival Guide. A free, monthly
E-mail newsletter available on the web at http://www.ecoach.com/.
Dean, B. (1999b). Building a coaching or consulting practice: Writing
a reader-friendly E-mail newsletter. The Independent Practitioner, 19 (4),
Dean, B. (1999c). Marketing a virtual coaching practice on a national
scale. The Independent Practitioner. 19 (3), 112-115.
Dean, B. (1999d). Say goodbye to managed care: Personal and professional
coaching by phone
different arena, same skills. The Independent Practitioner,
19 (2), 59-62.
Dean, B. (1999e). The Therapist as Coach. A free, monthly E-mail newsletter
available on the web at http://www.mentorcoach.com/ or
by calling 301.986.5688.
Gates, B. (July/August,1999). A view from the top: a Context interview.
Context: Business Strategies for the Digital Age. pp. 38-42.
Ben Dean Ph.D., is a psychologist in private
practice, a Master Certified Coach, and Founder & CEO of MentorCoach,
a virtual university that trains therapists to add virtual coaching as a
practice specialty. He is publisher of The Therapist as Coach, a free E-mail
newsletter, and may be reached at www.mentorcoach.com or