For three months now, I’ve meditated for twenty minutes every day.
Personally this is a big deal, as I’ve struggled to maintain a regular meditation practice for decades. I’ve resolved countless times to meditate daily, and fallen off the mindfulness wagon over and over again.
When we enable people to meaningfully connect at a meeting, something extraordinary happens. We transform a conference from an impersonal forum for information exchange to a place where people feel they matter: their views, their experience, their ability to contribute become seen.
Such a transformation is the essential work needed to build human community around the event. It becomes something special, standing out like a beacon from the humdrum conferences routinely inflicted on attendees.
The meeting feels different, is different, because it allows participants to be truly heard and seen. Because being listened to is a gift. And, as Seth Godin puts it:
“We like to see. But mostly, we’re worried about being seen…the culture of celebrity that came with TV has shifted. It’s no longer about hoping for a glimpse of a star. It’s back to the source–hoping for a glimpse of ourselves, ourselves being seen.” —Seth Godin, Mirror, mirror
It takes a few minutes at the start of a gathering to create agreements that help make it a safe place for participants to speak their minds, ask appropriate questions, and share possibly intimate yet important information about their work and lives that inform the entire event.
Immediately, the conference is subtly different, full of new possibilities, some of which might have been considered risky or even taboo. Everyone in the room begins to learn about each other in ways that matter. Everyone begins to discover how they can become a part of the gathering, how they can contribute and how they can learn about issues and challenges that personally matter.
Make it easy for participants to be safely and truly heard and seen. Your conferences will be all the better for it.
After dinner last night I heard a familiar sound — the growl of the UPS box truck driving up our 600′ rural driveway. I knew it was our regular driver, the guy who’s been delivering for years, because if he sees I’m in my home office he’ll stop and do a tight three-point turn outside the entrance, rather than driving past to reverse by the garage.
I heard the van door slide back and went to the door to meet the guy I’ll call Roger. Roger is tall and lanky, has a sweet smile and disposition, and is open to talk if the time is right. Over the years he’s met me hundreds of times in that doorway. Mostly, he smiles and hand over the delivery, I thank him and wish him a good night, and he jumps into his truck, finishes reversing and drives away. Once in a while, when the roads are bad, we talk about his day: how he’s handled the challenges of delivering along my rural town’s sixty miles of dirt roads plus the surrounding area.
For some reason I hadn’t seen Roger for a few weeks; the other drivers had been making deliveries. So I said, “Hey, you’re back!” as he strolled towards me, package in hand.
“Well, I’ve been off a lot; my mother just passed away,” he replied.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. I stood and looked at him.
“Well” he said…
…and he started to tell his story.
Roger talked about his mom. He stood facing sideways from me, with an occasional glance in my direction prompted by my occasional responses to what he was saying. Once in a while he’d swivel to face me, sharing something that was especially important. Then he went back to telling me about his frequent journeys down south to see her since she’d fallen and broke multiple bones in June, how his family had done their best to cope, and her eventual decline and death.
He told me about dealing with “picking up the pieces” now she was gone. About the last time he saw her in the hospital, when she was “all scrunched up” and seemed out of it, until he bent down and hugged her and told her “I love you mom” and she opened one eye and said “I love you too” “as clear as anything” and then closed her eye and “was out of it again”. He told me much more than I’ll share here.
Roger talked for over ten minutes, by far the longest conversation we’ve ever had. Now and again he edged away during our time together. But he couldn’t quite get himself to stop what he wanted or needed to say.
And that was fine with me. I was in no hurry, and he wanted to talk.
At the end I wished him well and he turned, got into his van, and motored off down my driveway.
When I close peer conferences with a Group Spective, there’s always a moment that is hard for me. It occurs during the Plus/Delta, when people are sharing what they’d like to change in the event they’ve just experienced. Participants offer many suggestions, perspectives, and ideas that make the organization’s future activities and events better, and their sharing frequently helps me improve my own work.
And then someone, let’s call them John, comes up to the microphone and says something like this:
How do we get people to participate at meetings? How can we design for easier attendee participation?
We know that participants — people who are active learners — learn more, retain more, and retain more accurately than passive attendees. They are also far more likely to make valuable connections with their peers during the event.
Ask a hard question every time we go to a meeting…
All of these are choices, choices that require no one to choose us or give us permission.
Every time I find myself wishing for an external event, I realize that I’m way better off focusing on something I can control instead. —Seth Godin, What Would Happen
All good, but Seth begs this question. What can meeting designers do to make it easier for attendees to participate more at meetings?
Three things to do for easier attendee participation
First, we need to model participation throughout our event. In Spain last month, I was invited for dinner in a local family’s home. Besides being treated to amazing food, drink, and conversation, I was casually encouraged to use a branding iron to melt the sugar on our Crème Brûlée. I was politely asked to help wash the dishes. Being an active participant during the evening, even in these small ways, made me part of the experience. I was not a passive consumer. Participating added significantly to my enjoyment and connection to the kind couple who had invited me into their home.
And third, always remember that we can’t make people do anything. Ultimately what they do is their choice. So it’s important to convey that participation is always optional. I’ve found that when attendees know they have the option to opt out they are more likely to participate.
What approaches have you used to make it easier for your attendees to participate? Share your ideas in the comments below!
Perhaps you’re wondering: what’s the connection between facilitation, rapt attention, and love?
Why am I drawn to facilitation? I’ve often heard an uneasy inner voice that wonders if it’s about a desire or need for control and/or power. And yet I know through experience that when I am facilitating well, I have influence but no real control or power.
Then I read this:
“Freud said that psychoanalysis is a ‘cure through love,’ and I think that is essentially correct. The love is conveyed not so much in the content as in the form: the rapt attention of someone who cares enough to interrogate you. The love stows away in the conversation.” —Psychotherapist and writer Gary Greenberg, interviewed in “Who Are You Calling Crazy?”, The Sun, July 2016
Facilitation is not psychotherapy (though sometimes it may have similar results.) But they both have something in common when performed with skill: the gift of listening closely. And that gift of rapt attention is given out of love—not of the content but through the form.
Though I sometimes want to be in (illusory) control, I am drawn to facilitation out of love.
Why are you drawn (if, indeed, you are) to facilitation?
One of the hardest things for me to do is to shut up and listen.
“If I could give just one piece of advice to all medical students, I would say, ‘Show up completely, and then shut up for at least two minutes while the miracle in front of you tells you who they are and how you can help them.’ If every doctor did just that one thing, it would change medicine.” —Raymond Barfield, Professor of Medicine and Divinity, Duke University, from “The Miracle in Front of You”, January 2016 interview in The Sun
It’s hard for me to shut up and listen because…
…I get sparked by what people say and I want to respond.
…people often talk about their problems, and I love solving problems—even when no one asked me to solve them.
…I have a need for connection with others and want to share who I am, sometimes more than is best for our relationship.
Yet, when I am able to shut up and give the gift of listening, the odds that the person speaking feels heard increases.
And, when I am able to shut up and give someone sharing a problem the space to say fully what’s on her mind, it’s more likely she’ll ask me what I think, and then, perhaps, I can help her.
And, when I am able to shut up and connect with someone through listening well, I’ll usually end up connecting with him more deeply.
Finally, of course, when I shut up and listen well, I’m less likely to miss important information that I need or want to hear.
We can all—especially me—benefit from shutting up and listening.
In his beautiful and insightful book “Being Mortal“, surgeon Atul Gawande describes a mistake clinicians frequently make. They “see their task as just supplying cognitive information—hard, cold facts and descriptions. They want to be Dr. Informative.”
Atul contrasts this with an approach offered by palliative care physician Bob Arnold:
“Arnold … recommended a strategy palliative care physicians use when they have to talk about bad news with people—they ‘ask, tell, ask.’ They ask what you want to hear, then they tell you, and then they ask what you understood.” —Atul Gawande, Being Mortal, pages 206-7
“Ask, tell, ask” is great advice for anyone who wants to connect fruitfully in a learning environment. Personally, over the years, I’ve become better at asking people what they want to learn (ask) before responding (tell), but I still often omit the second ask: “what did you understand?”
The follow-up ask is important for two reasons.
Without it we do not know if anything we told has been heard/absorbed, and whether the listener’s understanding is complete and/or accurate.
Asking the listener’s understanding of what he heard allows him to process his understanding immediately. This not only improves the likelihood that it will be retained and remembered longer but also allows him to respond to what he has heard and deepen the conversation.
“Ask, tell, ask” assists transforming a putative one-way information dump from a teacher to a student into a learning conversation. I will work to better incorporate the second ask into my consulting interactions. Perhaps you will too?
Recently I was sitting in a plane about to take off and noticed something interesting during the usual safety instructions video.
Did the flight attendants travel up and down the aisles checking that I’d fastened my seat belt and my personal item was fully under the seat in front of me? No, they didn’t.
Did they retire to their little jump seats, while the locations of the exits were described in a comforting baritone narrative they’d heard a thousand times before. Nope.
Instead, the crew stood, unmoving in the aisles, facing the passengers for the whole three minutes. The conscientious ones stared at the nearest monitor, even though they couldn’t see what’s on it because they were looking at the back!
Why did they do this?
My flight attendants were modeling listening.
Why? Well, if they appeared to be ignoring the safety video (which they could probably repeat backwards perfectly in their sleep), here’s the message that I would receive:
You don’t need to listen to this.
And my interpretation would be:
Not only is this stuff they’re telling me not important, the flight attendants also think it’s a waste of time too.
Let’s face it; listening well is something that’s extremely hard to do for any length of time. During the facilitation of a large peer conference roundtable that lasts a couple of hours, I find it impossible to do perfectly. But even though, at times, I revert from listening to hearing, I always try to model listening. As the facilitator, if I appear disengaged from what participants are saying I send a message, not only to the person who is speaking but also to everyone present, that what is being said is unimportant. Such behavior, dis-empowering in so many ways, can seriously weaken the building of connections and intimacy amongst conference participants.
I hope I never need to urgently know the positions of the six emergency exits on an Airbus A320, but if that day comes and I do, it will be due to the consistent and persistent modeled listening of the flight attendants on all the airplanes I’ve traveled on over the years. Thanks guys!
Working on a video trailer for my book recently reminded me of Margaret Wheatley’s beautifully written turning to one another and its short chapter entitled willing to be disturbed.
She points out how we’re not trained to admit we don’t know, and how difficult it is for us to give up our certainties. Margaret believes, as do I, that curiosity about what others believe is what we need, and that we need to be willing to admit that we’re not capable of figuring out things alone.
She recommends that we listen for what surprises us. If what you say disturbs me, she says, I must believe something contrary to you. My shock at your position exposes my own position.…If I can see my beliefs and assumptions, I can decide whether I still value them.
When I talk about attendee-driven conferences, while some people “get” the inherent possibilities, many find it hard to believe that a group of people can create a rich, optimal agenda for the event within a few hours from their initial meeting. Sustaining such disbelief is uncomfortable, and one common response is to stop listening for differences. Although I often feel frustrated when I sense that people aren’t listening in this way, I do my best to continue to listen to their truth, because that’s how I can stay open to learning from them.
Margaret concludes: I expect to be disturbed by what I hear from you. I know we don’t have to agree with each other in order to think well together. There is no need for us to be joined at the head. We are joined by our human hearts.