The importance of modeling listening

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!

The Stranger on the Airplane

airline passenger - davitydave - 3362787991_48b494a46e_oLong ago, when I was a British college student, I would set off to explore Europe each summer. There were no budget flights in those days, so I traveled by train. Some of my trips lasted days, but I loved the journey because of the people I met. I still remember the G.I. returning from Vietnam who’s now a Denver judge, the Belgium cabinet minister who tried for several hours to convert us to communism, and the cute Irish postgraduate student who…well never mind.

Now I live in the U.S. where trains are a rarity, at least in my part of the world, so I fly when it doesn’t make sense to drive. And I still enjoy striking up conversations with the stranger(s) sitting next to me. I’m not pushy—some people don’t want to talk, and that’s fine—but, more often than not, we end up exploring each other’s lives for a few hours. Over the last few years I remember, among others, the French airline executive who kissed me on both cheeks when we parted, the nun who visited prisoners and showed me years of correspondence, the fascinating sales director of a major internet hosting company, the lay ministry provider of counseling support for military families, and the British basketball agent who also owned a debt collection agency.

Some of these people shared intimate things about their lives during our time together; things I doubt they shared with most of the people they worked with every day. They did this because we were never going to meet again. For a few hours, they were with the Stranger on the Airplane. And, of course, they were my Strangers on the Airplane, and sometimes I told them intimate things as well.

I’ve seen a similar thing happen at Conferences That Work. The intimacy is not as deep initially, because, I think, attendees are aware that they may meet another time if the conference is held again. On the other hand, if they do meet a sharer again, attendees have an opportunity to go deeper. I find it strange, yet enjoyable, to meet people once a year and expand my connection on each occasion in unforeseen ways.

In my experience, the majority of people (on airplanes and at conferences, at least) enjoy talking quite freely with strangers who they trust. Because the ground rules support a confidential, safe environment this potential of intimacy is present at Conferences That Work. I like that. How about you?

Image attribution: flickr user davitydave – creative commons share alike 2.0 generic