William Gibson & Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine introduces us to an alternative world where electronics was never discovered, where computers are made of polished brass and powered by steam.
Sometimes I dream I’m living in an alternative conference universe where we’ve never discovered that people who travel thousands of miles to be in the same room with one another don’t want to spend most of their time just listening to people at the front of that room.
“Patiently Smiley waited for the speck of gold, for Connie was of an age where the only thing a man could give her was time.” from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John Le Carré
I was facilitating a peer conference roundtable recently when a young man began to speak. He was obviously nervous: his voice a monotone, when it wasn’t quavering. I was peripherally aware that some people didn’t seem to be listening. He paused for a moment and his eyes swept around the circle, searching for a sign that anyone cared about what he had to say. He found me.
I was leaning forward, looking directly at him, giving him my full attention. Our eyes locked and I nodded slightly. He took a breath and continued. His voice became stronger. I saw people turn back to him and he finished well.
I had just given the gift of listening, and this young man had been nourished by it.
When I am facilitating it’s my responsibility to actively listen to what is going on, focussing my full attention on what others say and do. When I’m successful, those who are present know that there is at least one other person who is listening to them and who takes seriously what they have to say.
Listening like this is hard work. To conscientiously listen to participants for over two hours at a large roundtable is extremely challenging for me. But it’s very important. People need to be heard, and if they believe they will not be heard, why should they bother to speak? By offering good listening at the start of a peer conference, I model and encourage a conference environment where openness twinned with receptiveness becomes a safe option for participants.
There’s a wider benefit from the cultivation of this skill. Practicing listening when required by my role has helped me to be a better listener during all the times when I’m not facilitating—when I’m a participant, or with my family, or as a customer. You, too, may find that developing your ability to fully listen pays rich dividends.