How to provide new experiences at meetings

new experiences at meetingsHow can we provide new experiences at meetings? Not new F&B, decor, or glitz. Something deeper.

Here’s a story…

A memorial service

Last month, I staffed an online memorial service for E, a friend who died tragically, at age 42, of breast cancer. With over a hundred attendees, most listened as friends and family spoke. When the main service ended, I hosted one of several breakout rooms for those who wanted to stay and talk.

People were allocated to the breakout rooms randomly. A woman in my room looked quite upset, and I asked her how she knew E. She shared that they met each other in high school, and were friends for many years. They eventually drifted apart, and only reconnected when she heard about E’s cancer.

The woman looked really upset. So I asked her if she wanted to tell us more. She burst into tears. “We found out we had breast cancer at the same time, and both went into treatment.” She sobbed harder. And then she cried out, “But I survived. I’m OK.”

We talked a little about her guilt at surviving. We gave her the gift of listening. Afterwards, she looked better, and perhaps she felt a little better too.

New experiences

We gave the woman an opening to share her feelings of guilt. She gained a new experience, one that I think was significant to her.

It was also a significant new experience for me. At the start of the breakout, I had no idea what would happen. I felt happy to be able to give this woman a place to voice her feelings. It’s the kind of work I love to do, my ikigai.

Providing new experiences at meetings can be as simple as this.

Creating environments and opportunities for new experiences to happen.

Fear of new experiences

To an infant, all experiences are new. Rapidly though, as we grow older, experiences repeat and they become comfortable and familiar. It’s tempting to desire to try and relive old, pleasant experiences, rather than seek out new ones. That’s understandable. New experiences can be scary. Not only for the person experiencing them, but also for society. As D.H. Lawrence said a hundred years ago:

“The world fears a new experience more than it fears anything. Because a new experience displaces so many old experiences…The world doesn’t fear a new idea. It can pigeon-hole any idea. But it can’t pigeon-hole a real new experience.”
D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature

This universal fear is the reason the meeting industry continues to struggle with incorporating new experiences into events. Often, we sidestep the issue and tell ourselves that some novel venue, decor, food and beverage, or lighting will provide attendees with “a new experience”.

We choose to forget that magic happens outside one’s comfort zone.

And another opportunity for providing meaningful new experiences at an event is missed.

The alternative? Be brave, and explore and implement the practical suggestions below!

How to provide valuable new experiences at meetings

There’s a simple answer to the question: “How can we provide valuable new experiences at meetings?”

It requires a shift of perspective. At traditional meetings, it’s assumed that the meeting conveners are responsible for specific new experiences. This implies that the attendees are passive receivers of the program. They have no role in its creation. At traditional meeting after meeting, the onus is solely on the conveners to provide valuable new experiences. The temptation is to come up with cosmetic changes that, while possibly entertaining to some degree, do not fundamentally change what happens at the event.

Here’s what to do instead.

Instead of dreaming up changes to the physical environment of the meeting — the F&B, decor, etc. — provide a process environment that supports and encourages appropriate new interpersonal experiences around the content they want and need.

Doing this makes the participants co-creators of experiences that matter to them.

And doing this isn’t hard! I, and many others, have been designing and facilitating such meeting environments for decades. Here are the books I recommend that explain what you need to know and how to implement. And here’s how to make it easier for attendees to risk having new experiences at your event.

If you want to know how well this works, take a look at the randomly chosen comments that participants have made about my events over the last thirty years, and that appear in the sidebar of this blog.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

If I can help you in any way create an environment for new experiences at your meetings, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Original image attribution: Flickr user tauw under CC BY-NC 2.0 license

You can’t make people change. But…

you can't make people change

“You can’t make people change. But you can create an environment where they choose to.”
—Seth Godin, Leadership

Change is hard. And you can’t make people change.

However, meetings have tremendous potential to change lives. Attendees have something in common: a profession, a passion, a shared experience together. They are with people who, in some way, do what they do, speak the same language, and face the same challenges.

What an opportunity to connect with like-minded souls, learn from each other, and, consequently, change one’s life for the better!

Unfortunately, most conferences squander this opportunity. Learning is restricted to broadcast-style lectures, Q&A is often more about status than learning, and attendees have little if any input into the topics and issues discussed.

Peer conferences support change

The peer conferences I’ve been designing and facilitating for 29 years are different. Yes, you can’t make people change. But, as Seth Godin points out, you can create an environment where they choose to!

Peer conferences create an optimal environment for supporting attendees in the difficult work of making changes in their lives.

Peer conferences do this by providing a safe, supportive, and participation-rich environment that includes the freedom to choose what happens.

  • A safe environment supports attendees taking risks: the risks of thinking about challenges and issues in new ways.
  • The supportive environment of a peer conference provides process tools that allow attendees to freely explore new possibilities.
  • A participation-rich environment ensures that attendees are likely to connect with peers who can help them or whom they can help, thus building networks and new capabilities in the future.
  • The freedom to choose what happens at a peer conference allows attendees to collectively create the meeting that they want and need, rather than be tied to the limited vision of a program committee or the vested interests of conference stakeholders.

These are the core design elements of peer conferences that make them so successful in creating change. Their very design maximize the likelihood that participants will choose to make useful and productive change in their lives.