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
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!”)
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. So 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.
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.
Here’s one end of the resulting sharing wall.
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”.
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. I believe that reflective and connective processes like this should be used after every traditional presentation session to maximize its value to meeting participants.
A play, like a straight line, is the shortest path from emotion to emotion —George Pierce Baker
Of course it’s O.K. to express your feelings at weddings and funerals. But when was the last time you heard someone talk about his or her feelings at a conference? When was the last time you did?
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.
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 listed at the top of the graded class roster, displayed publicly on the school notice board twice a semester.
By contrast, time for understanding or expressing my feelings simply wasn’t allocated on the educational agenda. 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 we were never encouraged 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.
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 are designed to do this. The safety comes from agreed ground rules that explicitly give participants the right to speak their truth while promising privacy for anything that’s 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 when 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?
Why 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.