Can you hear me now?

hear meI do not have a magnetic personality. I would never have been cast as the lead in the classic ad series When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen. Yes, I’m a recovering academic, so I love to talk. But that doesn’t mean that people always hear me.

And that can occasionally be a problem when I’m facilitating group work.

Ultimately, as we’ll see, it’s a good problem to have. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem.

Facilitating group work is ultimately about guiding and supporting a group doing its work, both as individuals and collectively. It’s not about my work. And I’m okay with that, because I am the second sort of escapologist and I know it’s not about me.

So, unlike a speaker or presenter, I am comfortable being the center of inattention most of the time.

But, obviously, people need to listen to me sometimes, so I can facilitate them doing their work. And, there are certain situations when they have a hard time listening to me.

If you facilitate group work, you probably know what I’m talking about. Effective group work includes periods when group members are working with each other, not you. And when they’re having these conversations, they are not listening to you. They are (well, hopefully) listening to each other.

Which means that getting their attention is difficult.

Can you hear me now?

Last week, I was reminded how difficult it is to get a group’s attention. I was the guest at Professor Dan Cormany‘s Convention Management class at Florida International University. I have a standing invitation for event and hospitality teachers to meet online with their class for free. Dan has taken me up on this several times. I love spending time with such students—the future of the meeting industry—and finding out what’s on their minds.

On this occasion, we used a setup I’ve never experienced before. Dan and the students were together in person, and they decided to display me on a front-of-room screen but also run a simultaneous Zoom meeting so I could see the students individually and talk with them one-on-one.

(Production pros will recognize this arrangement is susceptible to audio feedback problems, which did indeed hold up the class a bit. To minimize them, have participants use headsets when possible. Otherwise turn off individual computer speakers and all mikes except for the one in-person participant currently talking.)

I began the class with a quick pair share between students, giving each pair a couple of minutes to share with each other why they were taking the class.

At which point, I completely lost everyone’s attention.

The ignored facilitator

Two minutes went by, and I asked the students to stop sharing so we could move on to the main segment of the class, where I answered any questions they wanted to ask me.

Nothing happened. The students kept on talking. They were enjoying learning about each other and they didn’t want to stop.

I asked again. Several times. I increased my speaking volume, but it was as if I had been banished from the meeting. I was 1,600 miles away, the students weren’t listening to me, and there was nothing I could do about it.

Dan to the rescue!

Thankfully, Dan noticed that I was being ignored. He was in the room, and his students are used to listening to him. After a couple of announcements, the students’ conversational hubbub diminished, and I was back in contact with the class.

The rest of the class went well. I closed with another pair share for students to share their takeaways with each other. However, before this one started I made sure to ask Dan to bring it to a close!

Hear me! Getting a group’s attention

Even when I’m present in the room, the same scenario often happens! Yes, there are people who can usually get the attention of an energetically conversing crowd. But I often find it hard. Knowing this, I’ll sometimes find someone in the group who has this gift, and ask them to get the group’s attention for me when needed. Alternatively, you can pick a leader who’s known to the group, like Dan was, for this role.

There are many methods that teachers and trainers use to get attention. To learn more about them, see Chapter 22 of my book, The Power of Participation.

Although the difficulty of getting a group’s attention is a problem that facilitators face regularly, in the big picture it’s a good thing.

Why? Because, when a competent facilitator has trouble getting attention, it means that participants are actively working with each other. Have you ever left a meeting session full of excitement and ideas for future work, perhaps having made important new connections in the process? (Or have you hung around afterwards, continuing conversations?) When this happens, the facilitator has done their job well.

So if you’re facilitating, and sometimes find it difficult to bring group members reluctantly back from engagement, don’t fret. Remember that your pain is their gain.

Image attribution: “2010 IACA Conference – evening reception at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum” by Corvair Owner is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0. and modified with additional graphics.