Most weekdays, my wife and I join a fifteen-minute online meditation offered by teachers at the Insight Meditation Society. The other day, teacher Matthew Hepburn introduced a dharma practice of meditating, not on one’s breath or body sensations, but on another person. As Matthew talked, I realized that I experience good facilitation listening as a meditation.
Miles Franklin, the Australian writer and feminist best known for her novel My Brilliant Career, wrote the above words in her autobiography. Like Miles, I believe that all people want and need opportunities to share how they’re thinking and feeling.
Meetings of every kind offer these opportunities. When I walk into our tiny town rural post office, I sometimes see folks for whom a conversation about almost anything with the sole postal worker is clearly important. Perhaps that customer will have little or no other human contact that day. What is talked about is far less important than the act of telling.
Personal meetings like these, whether brief or extended, between good friends or strangers, are fundamental. Many of us are lucky enough to have “someone to tell it to”, though some do not.
Someone to tell it to at conferences
Conferences, whether in-person or online, are also potential arenas for conversations. They are places for participants — who have something in common with each other — to find someone to tell it to. Even if the teller believes that they weren’t fully heard, the act of telling is valuable. (Otherwise, people wouldn’t journal and practice self-affirmations.)
But some conferences offer better opportunities than others. Traditional events relegate conversations to the hallways, to breaks and socials. No conversations occur during lectures. Even post-presentation Q&As rarely evolve into a conversation, which is always between the presenter and a succession of audience members.
Given the fundamental human need to tell, meeting stakeholders owe it to participants to create opportunities and environments for rich conversations in the sessions, rather than just the gaps between them. I have been doing this for 31years, and it’s clear that meeting designs that integrate meaningful conversations into sessions have a transformational effect on almost all participants. (Read any of my books to learn specific techniques and designs that create meaningful and valuable conversations during meeting sessions.)
I 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.
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.
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.
The essential characteristics of meeting professionals
If there is a heaven on earth in the event industry, there are four essential characteristics of successful meeting professionals you’ll meet there.
These four characteristics are essential because event professionals who possess and embrace them have what’s needed to thrive in our industry. And, perhaps even more important, they will love what they do.
Attention to detail
Every successful meeting involves thinking about, planning for and executing countless details. You can create the most original, beautiful event in the world, but if there’s no coffee available on the first morning, attendees are going to complain and remember. Late buses, missing or confusing signage, poor quality A/V, and a thousand other annoyances will mar an otherwise superb event.
So, good meeting professionals obsess about details. Obviously, we make big detailed lists about things that are supposed to happen. But we also think about details of things that could happen. We even think about circumstances that are very unlikely—but they have happened before, so we keep them in mind. We plan for planned and unexpected eventualities.
Good event professionals are seldom late, because they hate to be late. Our lives are sometimes crazy, but we mostly have things together. (Even when they’re not, we have plans on how we’re going to get back on track.) The one career my parents tentatively suggested to me I might want to consider was…wait for it…accountancy. Because they could see I was a detail person.
We are detail people. Paying attention to details is vital to create and execute successful events. It’s an essential characteristic for meeting professionals. But attention to detail is not enough…
Creativity when things don’t go according to plan
Any experienced meeting professional will tell you that the chances that everything will go according to plan A — what was supposed to happen — for an event is minuscule.
That’s why good event professionals have plans B, C, D… that cover the things that they know from experience might go wrong.
Many times, when things don’t go according to plan A, a backup plan is put into place, and the event goes on smoothly (at least as far as the participants are concerned).
However much we plan, experienced event professionals know that completely unexpected “stuff” will happen.
And that’s why good event professionals need to be creative when things don’t go according to (any) plan.
It’s not a coincidence that a surprising number of folks in the meeting industry have a theatrical background. Live theater, whether you’re on or behind the stage, provides a nightly opportunity for things to go wrong; things that need to be fixed or smoothed over right now. The show must go on.
I am rarely responsible for the logistics of the meetings I design or facilitate. And I have been awed and impressed by the creative solutions devised by the poor souls who are responsible in the moment for fixing something out of kilter. I’ve surprised myself with the creative approaches that popped into my head when a session I was facilitating went wonky. But the brilliant ways I’ve seen event professionals respond when faced with the unexpected — well, I’m glad it wasn’t me in charge.
Attention to detail, and the creative ability to solve unexpected problems get you a long way towards being a great event professional. But there’s more…
To have great communication skills, you need to be able to listen well, and have empathy for the people you’re with. You have to pick up on the verbal and non-verbal clues they provide about how your conversation is going. And you need to be able to respond appropriately, in ways they can hear you. People have written books about how to do this. It’s a difficult skill, but one that can always be improved with practice.
And it’s a great skill that will positively impact every aspect of your life.
I’m still working on it.
We’re almost there, but there’s one more characteristic that is, in my opinion, the most important of all…
Love being with people
If you don’t love being with people, all sorts of people, it’s going to be hard to be a great event professional.
Yes, everyone is flawed. We all have personality aspects that are sometimes hard for others to deal with. And there are people around whom it’s best to avoid, if you have a choice.
Although many meeting professionals are extraverts who get energy from interacting with others, there are many who need introvert-style downtime in their lives (including, during meetings). Regardless, both extraverts and introverts can love being with people.
Our industry, by definition, is people-centric. People can be amazing, frustrating, fascinating, challenging, delightful, and, once in a while, frightful. Good event professionals are capable of finding and connecting with the positive aspects of even the most difficult folks they meet. And, yes, loving them as people, even in the midst of turmoil.
I try to do this.
I don’t always succeed, but, nevertheless, my heart is there. And I know many great meeting professionals who strive to wear on their sleeve how they love being with people.
Yay for us!
My journey is our journey
Twenty years ago I was a successful, independent information technology consultant. If you had told me then that I’d leave that career (my fourth) to write a book about meeting design that would catapult me into the heart of the meeting industry, I’d have said you were crazy.
What has surprised me during this journey is meeting so many meeting professionals I like along the way. Those of you who are passionate and committed to this industry will know what I mean. I am like you, and I like you, because we share the fundamental joy of the experience of bringing people together in ways that work.
We don’t usually enjoy all the backbreaking preparation needed to make the meeting happen. It’s the excitement and pleasure we get from creating a great experience for people, in the moment, that makes it all worthwhile.
You folks who share this joy with me are my tribe. We are lucky to be in this heaven on earth community of meeting professionals.
I’m glad I know some of you, and am always happy to meet more. Feel free to reach out to me if you feel the same way.
Do you agree with this set of qualities? Are there other essential characteristics of meeting professionals you’d like to add? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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?