Who goes first — protocols for online meetings

who goes firstLast week I shared protocols for “who goes next?” at meetings. This week it’s time to cover a closely related topic: who goes first?

When everyone shares at a meeting, someone has to start! There are two scenarios to consider: facilitating a discussion for a single group, and providing directions for choosing who goes first when simultaneous small group discussions are needed or desired.

Face-to-face and online meetings have different signaling options, which I described in detail last week. So for this post, I’ll chronicle “who goes first” options for single and multiple group scenarios.

Options for choosing who goes first with a single group

• Ask for a volunteer

Probably the most common protocol for determining who goes first is to ask “who wants to start?” and provide a signaling method: e.g., raise your hand, or use an online signaling option.

This is generally a perfectly acceptable method, though, as you’ll see the next two options may be preferable under some circumstances.

• Facilitator/leader goes first

Sometimes a topic under discussion is tough to talk about. I’ve been in many meetings where the first contribution avoided addressing what was asked, or was meagre or superficial. This gives later sharers a license to follow suit. For example, a question about how a person is feeling about an issue may be answered by what they are thinking about it.

When a meeting facilitator or leader starts the sharing and models the kind of response that’s wanted, it’s much more likely that others will respond in a similar way.

• A plant goes first

No, not that underwatered yet surprisingly intelligent potted hibiscus that’s sitting next to the speakerphone. Or Groot. Rather, the facilitator asks a reliable participant, perhaps warned beforehand, to provide a great response to the posed question/issue/challenge.

Ways for small groups to independently determine who goes first

When you’re facilitating multiple small group sharing, either in person or online, you need to provide each group with guidance on how to choose who goes first. In person, you can provide this guidance once everyone is in their small group. Online, typically, you will need to supply “who goes first” instructions before people are whisked into their virtual breakout rooms.

A word about pair share

One of the best ways to improve any meeting session is to regularly include pair share (where paired participants each take time in turn to share their thoughts with their partner). Online, rather than splitting everyone into pairs, I recommend you create groups of four. Instruct each group to form two pairs, perhaps using one of the methods described below. Have one pair run pair share while the other pair listens, and then switch. This makes it more likely that each pair will actually follow instructions, and gives the group of four people a taste of three perspectives rather than one.

Methods for small groups to choose who goes first

You can use a couple of strategies: either leave it up to the groups to decide, or provide a method for them.

[Some of the following ideas were sparked by this post (check it out for even more ideas!) by Ted DesMaisons]

Letting each group decide who goes first is always an option, but it can also be fun to have groups compare or discover something about each other. Here are some simple ideas; feel free to add your own, especially if you can identify something that relates to the topic groups or pairs are going to discuss:

  • First name closest to start of alphabet
  • Longest first name
  • Tallest
  • Nearest to birthday
  • Earliest up in the morning
  • Lowest street address number
  • Closest to a point in the room
  • Longest hair
  • Most pockets
  • Lives nearest to water
  • Most recently worked in the garden
  • Last purchased something
  • Most colorful clothing

Feeling whimsical? For a pair share, pick neutral substitutes for partners A and B. For example: “One of you is cup, one of you is saucer.” “One of you is coffee, the other tea.” “One of you is sun, one is moon.” There are plenty of other pairs you can use (rock and roll, knife and fork, bread and butter) but avoid those that could have a negative connotation (e.g., life and death, right and wrong). And if you’re running multiple pair shares in a session, have Partner B start first sometimes, and change partners and who-goes-first strategies as well.

Are there other ways to decide who goes first?

I hope these ideas will prove helpful. I bet there are more I haven’t thought of. If you have additions and improvements, please share them in the comments!

Who goes next — protocols for online meetings

who goes nextYou’ve surely overheard or been part of a “conversation” where one person talks non-stop. Who goes next? Nobody! “Free discussions” at meetings frequently suffer from the same phenomenon. A few people monopolize most of the time, and many people, often a majority, say nothing.

If you want to support everyone’s right to share at a meeting, you’ll need to facilitate what happens via defining and agreeing on who can speak, and when, and for how long.

One of those agreements involves determining who goes next.

Let’s explore strategies for who goes next, first for face-to-face meetings and then online meetings.

Face-to-face options for who goes next

When all participants are physically together in one room, there are several ways “who goes next?” may be decided.

• Random

No facilitation or explicit process used. Whoever speaks gets to talk. If two or more people start simultaneously, they decide (or battle) as to who should speak next.

Because this is the default mode for most casual human conversations, many groups unconsciously adopt it when they meet. As we all know, this (lack of) process eventually breaks down as the group gets larger, with people shut out or deciding not to speak.

• Round-robin sharing

The simplest who goes next protocol for a face-to-face group is round-robin sharing, where participants’ physical location determines who speaks next. When using a circle of chairs, this is easy to do. It’s not much harder for a facilitator to implement round-robin in other room sets, providing participants aren’t moving around. An agreed limit on time to speak is typically needed in order to prevent one or more people from monopolizing group time. And it’s important for the facilitator to check that no one’s been left out when sharing appears to be done.

• Popcorn sharing

In popcorn sharing, people indicate they’d like to speak by some agreed on method, say by raising their hand, and a facilitator guides who speaks next. This allows people to speak when they’re ready to say something, rather than be forced to speak because it’s “their turn” due to where they are sitting or standing. For successful group sharing, a facilitator should check that everyone who wants to has spoken before anyone speaks again. Again, a time limit is recommended.

“Pass” should always be an option

However a group uses to decide who goes next, it’s important to make clear that speaking is optional. Give anyone who doesn’t want to speak at an available time an explicit opportunity to state this, rather than assuming that anyone who hasn’t spoken doesn’t want to.

Who goes next at an online meeting?

Determining who goes next during an online meeting discussion poses additional challenges to those of a face-to-face meeting. That’s because we don’t have all the signaling options that are possible when all participants are physically together.

• Facilitator chooses

At an online meeting there’s no physical room set to use for a round-robin process. (A common mistake is to assume that the order participants appear on one’s screen is the same for everyone, but that’s not the case—and the visible order may change at any time when participants join or depart the meeting.)

One strategy is to have the facilitator choose who speaks next. For a small group, the facilitator’s memory may be sufficient to keep track of who has spoken and who hasn’t.

Alternatively, meeting platforms generally allow the host to display a list of participants, and the facilitator can use a screenshot of this list to invite and track who goes next.

Finally, for a more formal meeting, an agenda distributed before the meeting can include an ordered list of speakers.

As in face-to-face meetings, the facilitator should check that everyone who wants to has spoken before anyone speaks again.

• Participants raise hands

We are all used to raising hands when we want to speak in a group. If all participants have their camera on, and the facilitator can see everyone on one screen (check this — every meeting platform has a limit to the number of participants shown simultaneously), you can have people raise a hand if they want to speak. The facilitator then names who will speak next. If more than one person raises their hand, it’s good to recognize both: e.g. “Martha, and then let’s hear from Priya”.

If you have a few people on phones, the facilitator can check in with them periodically, asking if there’s something they want to contribute. However, phone-only attendees are typically second-class citizens on video conferencing calls unless the meeting group is small.

Some meeting platforms have the capability for participants to click on a “raise hand” icon, to inform the host they want to speak. (Microsoft Teams will be adding this, though the displayed hand is pretty small.) Zoom implements this well, even allowing phone callers to “raise their hand” by entering *9 on their keypad.

• Participants use text chat

If everyone has appropriate access, another approach is for attendees to request to speak via text chat. I’m not a big fan of this approach because I’ve found that text chat is a great channel for people to connect with other participants and comment on the meeting, and it’s hard to use this channel for two different purposes. One alternative is to reserve the meeting platform text chat for normal use, and agree on a separate text chat channel that uses a different platform for queuing speaking requests. This could be a viable approach for very large online meetings, though remember that running a free-floating discussion amongst a large number of people is just as ineffective and prone to abuse online as it is in person.

• Current speaker picks the next person to speak

A final strategy is to have the current speaker pick who speaks next. This adds a little nice informality to the sharing. There are a couple of things to bear in mind with this approach. First, it can be hard for people to remember who has spoken and who hasn’t. And second, I’ve seen everyone avoid choosing people with hard-to-pronounce names until they are the only folks left!

Are there other ways to decide who goes next?

If you have additions and improvements to the above ideas, please share them in the comments! And stay tuned for my upcoming post on a similar online meeting issue: who goes first?

How to support a community online during covid-19

support a community online during covid-19
How can you support a community online during covid-19? Over the last few weeks I’ve run numerous online Zoom meetings for support groups and local, social, and professional communities. In the process, I’ve learned a lot about what makes these meetings most useful for participants.

I’m sharing what I’ve learned (so far) here.

Key takeaways

• Breakout room functionality is essential for your online meeting platform.
Small group conversations are the core components of successful online meetings. (If your meeting only involves people broadcasting information, replace it with email!) Unless you have six or fewer people in your meeting, you need to be able to efficiently split participants into smaller groups when needed — typically every 5 – 10 minutes — for effective conversations to occur. That’s what online breakout rooms are for. Use them!

• It’s important to define group agreements about participant behavior at the start.
For well over a decade, I have been asking participants to agree to six agreements at the start of meetings. Such agreements can be quickly explained, and significantly improve intimacy and safety. They are easily adapted to online meetings. (For example, I cover when and how the freedom to ask questions can be used when the entire group is together online.)

• Use process that allows everyone time to share.
You’ve probably attended a large group “discussion” with poor or non-existent facilitation, and noticed that a few people monopolize most of the resulting “conversation”. Before people divide into small breakout groups, state the issue or question they’ll be discussing, ask someone to volunteer as timekeeper, and prescribe an appropriate duration for each participant’s sharing.

• People want and need to share how they’re feeling up front.
I’ve found that pretty much everything important that happens at these meetings springs from people safely sharing at the start how they feel. They learn that they’re not alone. I ask participants to come up with one to three feeling words that describe how they’re feeling: either right now, or generally, or about their personal or professional situation. They write these words large with a fine-point permanent marker on one or more pieces of paper and share them, one person at a time, on camera or verbally. (Elaborations come later.)

• Sharing what’s working is validating, interesting, and useful.
In my experience, everyone has made some changes in their personal and/or professional lives that are helping them deal with the impact of the coronavirus. Sharing these in small groups is a supportive process that’s well worth doing.

• Consultations are a powerful small group activity.
Set aside time, if available, for a few group consults on individual challenges. Ask for volunteers. They will receive support, and their small group of impromptu consultants will feel good about helping.

• Don’t forget to provide movement breaks.
Occasional movement breaks are even more important for online than face-to-face meetings. Participants can feel trapped sitting in front of their camera. Schedule a break every 45 minutes.

• Check before moving on to a new topic.
If you are on video, ask for an affirmative sign (thumbs up or down), or use Roman voting. On audio, ask “who has more to contribute on this?”

• Provide a set of tips and conventions for the online platform you’re using.
Here are mine for Zoom.

• Schedule time for feedback and/or a retrospective.
Key questions: What was this like? Do we want to do this again? If so, when, and how can we improve it?

Preparing for your community online meeting

Key information should be distributed appropriately well in advance of the meeting. Include it in a single online document, and create a descriptive URL shortened link (e.g. bit.ly/ephhfeelings). I suggest you share a short promo for your why? for the meeting, followed by this “complete details” link. Because many people don’t read the details until shortly before the meeting, resend your share closer to the time of the event.

I also like to display the link printed on a card visible in my video feed, so folks who have joined the meeting can catch up. Don’t rely on a chat window for this, since latecomers will not see earlier chat comments in most meeting platforms.

Here’s a sample of what you might want to include in your pre-meeting document for a 90-minute online meeting. My comments are in curly brackets {}.

Sample pre-meeting information document for community online meeting

[Date and start/end time of meeting]
[Time when host will open online meeting] {I suggest opening the meeting platform at least 15 minutes before the meeting starts. This allows people, especially first-time users, time to get online}
Meeting starts promptly at [start time]

Please check out the following three links before the meeting:

Why you should attend [meeting title]{audience, rationale, agenda, etc.}
How to join this meeting {complete instructions on how to go online}
[Meeting platform] tips {make it easy for novices to participate — here are my Zoom tips}


Please have a few blank pieces of paper and a dark color fine point permanent marker (several, if you are artistically inclined). Before we start, write large on one piece of paper where you’re calling from. On another, please write (or illustrate) one to three feeling words that describe how you’re feeling: either right now, generally, about your personal or professional situation — you choose.


We will open the meeting at 11:45 am EDT.

Please join us before 12:00 if at all possible, so we can start together promptly. We’ll try to bring you up to speed if you join late, but it may be difficult if there are many already online and it will be disruptive for them.

Exact timings will depend on how many of us are present. This plan may change according to expressed needs. All times EDT.

11:45: Online meeting opens.

11:45 – 12:00: Join meeting.

12:00: Meeting starts. Housekeeping. Where are you from?

12:05: Sharing our feeling words together.

12:10: Preparing for sharing what’s going on for you.

12:15: Sharing what’s going on for you in online breakout room.

12:25: Group recap of commonalities and illustrative stories.

12:35: Preparing for sharing what’s helped.

12:40: Sharing what’s helped in online breakout room.

12:50: Break — get up and move around! {Share your screen with a countdown timer displayed so people know when to return.}

12:55: Group recap of what’s helped.

13:05 Preparing for individual consulting. {Ask for a few volunteers.}

13:10: Individual consulting in online breakout room.

13:25: Group recap of individual lessons learned.

13:35: Group feedback on session. Do we want to do this again? If so, when, and how can we improve it?

13:55: Thanks and closing.

14:00: Online meeting ends.

Support your community online during covid-19

Most online meetings do a poor job of maintaining participants’ attention. I’ve found that starting with a quick opportunity for people to share how they’re feeling effectively captures attendees’ interest. And using a platform and process that allows everyone time to share what’s important keeps participants engaged. You might get feedback like this…

“I just wanted to reach out again and thank you for the call today. What an incredible conversation spanning such significant geographical areas. The perspective we gain from discussion like today is priceless. I just got off of another call with [another community] and the vibe was completely different. While everyone was respectful, everyone’s overall sense of well being was generally pretty positive. And that’s where they wanted to keep it.”
—A participant’s message to me after an online meeting last week

Please try out these ideas! And share your suggestions and thoughts in the comments below.

Share information; don’t hoard it

share information don't hoard

Why would you want to share information, not hoard it? In today’s cutthroat business environment, isn’t exclusive knowledge synonymous with power — and the ability to make money?

Well, if you’re a stock trader or house flipper, maybe. But I’m a consultant who has long subscribed to Jerry Weinberg’s Seventh Law of Marketing: “Give away your best ideas” and Credit Rule: “You’ll never accomplish anything if you care who gets the credit”, from his invaluable book The Secrets of Consulting. (More of Jerry’s pearls of wisdom can be found here.)

Skeptical? Well, here’s an alternative historical perspective from a completely different source, a 1926 article about the New York Club of Printing House Craftsmen, uncovered by Jeff Jarvis and described as “…a lovely evocation on the value of sharing in our field, which we used to call printing.

“Stop. Stop the presses.”

I’ll let quotes from Jeff’s blog post tell the tale:

“‘The times are not so far distant when every foreman or executive jealously guarded his technical ‘secrets’, in the mistaken idea that by doing so he would make himself indispensable to his employer,’ Fuhrmann writes…

‘And the men [sic*] who had the same or similar problems to meet in the actual running of their employers’ businesses found that an exchange of views and ideas benefitted them without hurting their employers.'”

“And so, we attempt the same today in our rapidly changing field with meetings and communities of practice and training of journalists and managers.”

“Along this journey — which I believe will be long, generations or even centuries long — we need to provide the means to bring together these brave new leaders not just to teach them what we know (so they may challenge it) but also to enable them to teach each other, to share.”
—Jeff Jarvis, Stop. Stop the presses.

This is a touching, century-old example of how communities of practice benefit from sharing information.

Share information; don’t hoard it

During my decades as a consultant I’ve followed Jerry’s advice about giving away your ideas. (As I’ve been doing in this blog for ten years now.) As he explains:

“I do everything possible to encourage my clients to take over the work I’ve been doing. They usually give me direct credit, but even if they don’t, they love me for my generosity. This increases the chance they’ll give me future business, or recommend me to others.”
—Gerald M. Weinberg, Chapter 11, The Secrets of Consulting

Finally, as a meeting designer I’m convinced that using meeting formats that facilitate and support sharing amongst peers of relevant information is one of the most powerful ways to improve the effectiveness of meetings.

Share information; don’t hoard it. Whether you’re a community of practice, a consultant, or a meeting designer, this simple aphorism applies!

Image attribution: Flickr user ben_grey

The architecture of assembly

architcture of assembly

“Architecture sets the stage for our lives; it creates the world we inhabit and shapes how we relate to one another. In a time in which democracy is under increasing pressure in different parts of the world, it is time to rethink the architecture of assembly.”
Max Cohen de Lara and David Mulder van der Vegt, “These 5 architectural designs influence every legislature in the world — and tell you how each governs, The Washington Post, March 4, 2017

The architcture of assembly

How do room sets imply and influence what happens at meetings? Can room sets affect the quality of democracy, sharing, and equality experienced by participants?

In Parliament, a fascinating new book and website, Dutch architects Max Cohen de Lara and David Mulder van der Vegt document the architectural layout of all of the 193 United Nations’ member states legislative buildings, and analyze how their room sets correlate with the associated countries’ governance style. [Update: U.S. readers may be interested in a similar analysis of legislative chamber layouts of all 50 U.S. states.]

So what can we learn about meeting room set design from Parliament? Here are a few observations.

Curved theatre seating dominates

One of the interesting findings is that the most common legislative room set is one rarely used at traditional meetings: the semicircle.

architcture of assembly
National Assembly, Palais Bourbon, Paris, France

This of course echoes the pleas that Paul Radde & I have made for years for meeting planners to replace straight row theatre seating with curved row designs: pleas that, despite persuasive arguments, have largely fallen on deaf ears. Because every seat directly faces the focal point of the room, curved sets offer maximum comfort for each audience member. People don’t have to continually twist twist their bodies when they’re sitting for a long period.

Clearly, many architects of legislative chambers know something that most meeting planners don’t.

Room sets correlate with the level of democracy

Every room set imposes an architecture of assembly. Legislatures are meeting spaces that concentrate on sharing points of view, convincing others, making public political statements, negotiation, and compromise. Though all these objectives can be present for the non-political meetings and conferences that make up the majority of meeting industry work, let’s concentrate on the first activity: sharing points of view.

Parliament finds that classroom-style sets “…where members of parliament sit in regimented rows focused on a single speaker… [are] particularly common in countries with a low rank on the Economist’s Democracy Index.” Sadly, classroom sets are still, in my experience, the most common room sets used in meetings. If sharing points of view, participation, and engagement are desirable at a meeting, such sets should be avoided.

Conversely, circle seating is rarely used in parliaments or meetings. Only nine parliaments in the world meet in this setting.

The Landtag in Düsseldorf, the regional parliament of Nordrhein Westphalia in Germany

Circle room sets are the most egalitarian architecture, though hierarchy can still be suggested or maintained if two or more concentric circles of chairs are used. I open the Conferences That Work meeting design with participants sitting in a single circle of chairs — a room set limited, in practice, to around sixty people.

Horseshoe sets can facilitate a fluid focus

Horseshoe sets are, at first glance, a mixture of the semicircle set above and another common parliamentary form: opposing benches.

Opposing benches in the United Kingdom House of Commons Chamber

Interestingly, I’ve found that horseshoe room sets with a single-row of chairs, or multiple rows with plentiful aisles can provide an effective format for group discussions, with participants moving to and from a few “speaking” chairs at the mouth of the horseshoe.

The Bangladesh horseshoe-form legislative chamber

Meeting professionals are fortunate — if we apply ourselves

Here’s how Max & David conclude their Washington Post article:

“[Architecture] can be one way to … experiment with new models that are more attuned to contemporary life and to the challenges that we are facing today.”

Legislative chambers are massive formal structures that reflect the sociology, history, and politics of their culture. They are rarely rebuilt to reflect a change in the circumstances and outcomes they were originally designed to serve. Even so, the variety of forms displayed in Parliament shows us some of the rich possibilities available, even in heavily constrained circumstances.

Meeting professionals are more fortunate. We can usually change the room set to respond to the specific needs of a meeting. Yet too often, we limit ourselves to a small set of familiar forms we have experienced over and over again.

We can and should do better.

Room set and Landtag images reproduced from The Washington Post
French National Assembly image by Richard Ying et Tangui Morlier (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
House of Commons image attribution Flickr user uk_parliament
Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban, Dhaka, Bangladesh by Rossi101 at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

We can talk about it

We can talk about it 4015519496_e9515f879b_b

We can’t talk about how we could do things better around here
We can’t talk about what isn’t working
We can’t talk about the countless opportunities we ignore
We can’t talk about what hurts
We can’t talk about dignity
We can’t talk about how to make magic happen
We can’t talk to our boss, our employees, our board, our investors
We can’t talk about the things we can’t talk about

That’s a shame.
—Seth Godin, We can’t talk about it

One of the reasons we feel we can’t talk about things is that we are scared about who might hear—people who have, or might have, power or influence of some kind over us, like our boss (“You’re fired!“) or colleagues (“He’s weird!”)

Even if we’re at a meeting where none of these people are present, we’re unlikely to say certain things if we’re worried that, somehow, what we say gets back to these people.

Which is why one of the ground rules I ask everyone to agree to at the start of my conferences is about confidentiality:

“What we discuss at this conference will remain confidential. What we share here, stays here.”

I explain that you can still talk about what happened in general terms (“Most participants thought that implementing the new regulations would lead to increased airline security.”), but not in a way that directly implicates an individual (“John Smith said that the new regulations were just security theatre.”)

In the fourteen years since I introduced this ground rule, no one has ever refused to abide by it. And, to my knowledge, no one has ever breached this form of confidentiality.

There’s no ultimate guarantee, of course, that everyone will always honor this agreement. When we share something intimate, at that moment we are trusting those around us. Each person has to decide whether they are prepared to take a risk. Sometimes they will remain quiet. But my observations over the years have led me to believe that this ground rule makes the environment safer for many attendees, with the consequence that some of them will share important sensitive things that would otherwise remain unsaid.

We can talk about it, if we feel safe enough. Explaining and obtaining agreement on a confidentiality ground rule can take a minute at the start of an event. In my experience, it’s time well spent.

Photo attribution: Flickr user lewishamdreamer

From broadcast to learning in 25 minutes

from broadcast to learning GMIC2014 collab session

From broadcast to learning in 25 minutes

Last week’s Green Meetings Industry Council’s 2014 Sustainable Meetings Conference opened with a one-hour keynote panel: The Value of Sustainability Across Brands, Organizations and Sectors. Immediately after the presentation, my task was to help over two hundred participants, seated at tables of six, grapple with the ideas shared, surface the questions raised, and summarize the learning and themes for deeper discussion.

Oh, and I had twenty-five minutes!

For a large group to effectively review and reflect on presented material in such a short time, we have to quickly move from individual work to small group work to some form of concrete visual summary that’s accessible to everyone.

Here’s what I did

1) My audience hadn’t moved for over an hour, and their brains had, to varying degrees, gone to sleep. So, for a couple of minutes, I had people stand, stretch, twist and do shoulder rolls.

2) Next, I summarized what we were about to do. I

      • Outlined the three phases of the exercise: a) working individually; b) sharing amongst the small group at their table, and c) a final opportunity to review everyone’s work in a short gallery walk.
      • Pointed out the tools available. Each table had a sheet of flip-chart paper (divided into a 2 x 2 matrix), 4 pads of different colored sticky notes, and a fine-tip sharpie for each person.

2014-04-15 14.41.30

      • Explained the four categories they would use for their responses. After introducing each category I asked a couple of pre-primed volunteers to share an example of their response with the participants.
        • REMINDERS. “These are themes with which you’re already familiar that the keynote touched on. You might want to include ideas you think are important. And you might want to include themes that you have some expertise or experience with. More on that in a moment. Write each REMINDER on a separate blue sticky note, which will end up in the top left square of the flip chart.”
        • SPARKS. “Sparks are inspirations you’ve received from the keynote; new ideas, new solutions that you can adopt personally, or for your organization, or at your meetings. Write your SPARKS on yellow sticky notes; they’ll go in the top right square.
        • QUESTIONS. “These are ideas that you understand that you have questions about. Perhaps you are looking for help with a question. Perhaps you think a question brought up by the keynote is worth discussing more widely at this event. Write your questions on a green sticky note; they’ll go in the bottom left square.
        • PUZZLES. “Puzzles are things you feel that you or your organization or our industry don’t really understand and need help with. Write your puzzles on a violet sticky note; they’ll go in the bottom right.”
      • Gave these instructions. “In a minute I’m going to give you about five minutes to work alone and create your REMINDERS, SPARKS, QUESTIONS, and PUZZLES. Don’t put your notes on the flip chart paper yet; we’ll do that communally soon. Any questions?” [There were none.] “Two final thoughts:
        • 1) Words are fine, but feel free to draw pictures or diagrams too!
        • 2) Consider adding your name to any of your notes. We’re going to display your notes on the wall over there. If you have expertise or experience of one of your themes, adding your name to your note will allow others who are interested in the topic to find you. If you have a question or puzzle you need help with, adding your name will allow others who can help to find you.”

3) I gave everyone five minutes to create their individual notes, asking them to shoot for a few responses in each category.

4) For the second phase of the exercise, I asked for each person to briefly explain their notes with the others at their table, placing on the appropriate quadrant of the flip chart as they did so. I allocated each person a minute for this, and rang a bell when it was time for the next person to begin.

5) The final phase was a gallery walk. I asked one person from each table to go and stick their flip chart page on a large blank meeting room wall. Once done, I invited everyone to go to the gallery and explore what we had created together.

The results

Here’s one end of the resulting sharing wall.

from broadcast to learning 2014-04-15 19.06.05

6) Later that evening I had a small number of subject matter experts cluster the themes they saw. (If I had had more time, I would have had all the participants work on this together during my session.) The resulting clusters were referred to throughout the conference for people to browse and use as a resource. Here’s a picture, taken later, showing the reclustered items in our “sharing space”.

2014-04-17 15.08.14

Yes, you can go from broadcast to learning in 25 minutes! Even when time is short, an exercise like this can quickly foster huge amounts of personal learning, connection (via the table work and named sticky notes), and audience-wide awareness of interests and expertise available in the room. Use reflective and connective processes like these after every traditional presentation session to maximize its value to participants.

Expressing Our Feelings In Public

Of course it’s O.K. to express your feelings at weddings and funerals. But when was the last time you heard someone share their feelings in public at a conference? When was the last time you did?

I go to the theater

A play, like a straight line, is the shortest path from emotion to emotion
—George Pierce Baker

Last weekend I went to “Raising Our Voices“, a local theater gala by children, youth, and adults with disabilities. I got goose bumps and a little teary. And I finally figured out why this invariably happens when I watch kids theater.

Expressing Our Feelings In Public
You see, when I was growing up my education emphasized thinking. Learning important facts and concepts and being able to apply them to solve problems led to high marks on tests. Getting the right answers, preferably quicker than anyone else, got me to the top of the graded class roster, displayed publicly on the school notice board twice a semester.

No time to feel

However, the educational agenda allocated no time for understanding or expressing my feelings. The only kinds of grading that occurred as a consequence of my emotions were the dramatic reprisals taken when I infrequently misbehaved. All of us in school had feelings, of course, and they greatly affected how and what we did. But no one encouraged us to talk about or explore them. It was repeatedly implied that being near the bottom of the class list would be shameful, without ever giving us any insight as to what shame was!

Over the years I’ve learned to be more in touch with my emotions. And so, when I see kids in a play, encouraged to display joy, anger, fear, guilt, shame, grief and all the subtle variants of these basic human emotions, I’m taken back to my youth, and the little child in me both rejoices and aches for what I missed out on: the childhood opportunity to express and share integral aspects of who we are that were part of the human psyche long before the development of analytical thought.

A wise therapist friend of mine once told me that he believes when you feel that ache of simultaneous joy and pain, healing is going on.

A safe environment for sharing feelings

I think it’s important for conferences to offer a safe environment for attendees to share feelings that may come up during the event. Conferences That Work designs do this. Agreements explicitly safety give participants the right to speak their truth, and promise privacy for anything said.

I don’t want to give the impression that Conferences That Work are full of emoting attendees who rush to share their deepest feelings with anyone they can buttonhole. Far from it. I think I’ve seen more joy and passion at our sessions than at most other events I’ve attended. But, by and large, sharing about emotional issues doesn’t happen often.

But feelings do surface. For example, when people talk about difficulties they’re having in their workplace or their uncertainties surrounding a potential career or job change. I feel happy that our event supports and encourages them to do so. And from the feedback I’ve received, I know it’s important and empowering for the attendees who have the courage to express how they feel.

Have you felt safe to express your feelings at a conference? Do you think it’s appropriate and/or important to be able to do so? Under what circumstances? And what factors make it safer or harder for such sharing to occur?

“Shared pain is lessened; shared joy is increased; thus do we refute entropy”–Spider Robinson

Shared 491636125_c7972fadd2_o_dWhy do you go to conferences? I asked this question in the interviews I conducted while writing Conferences That Work. The most common answer? Eighty percent of my interviewees said they wanted to network/connect with others, slightly more than the seventy-five percent who said they came to learn.

Traditional conference sessions provide mainly one-way connection from the folks at the front of the room to everyone else. Opportunities for person-to-person connection are relegated to times outside the official schedule, like mealtimes and social events.

Peer conferences are different; they are designed to facilitate and support meaningful connections in three ways.

First, peer conferences are small—less than one hundred participants—which simplifies the task of getting to know a decent proportion of the people present, and leads to intimate conference sessions where discussion and sharing is more likely to occur.

Second, the opening roundtable offers a structured and safe time to learn about every other attendee, providing valuable ice-breaking information for striking up a conversation with people you want to get to know.

And third, the confidentiality ground rule, agreed to by every attendee, generates a conference environment where sharing—whether it be of information, discovery, or even expression of emotions, of pain or joy—is encouraged and safe.

Image attribution: http://www.flickr.com/photos/squonk/ / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0