This month’s guest blog post is by Jennifer Grau, president of Grau Interpersonal Communication, who is a listening trainer, coach, facilitator, speaker and consultant. She co-organized the first European Listening and Healthcare Conference in Nijmegen, The Netherlands, in 2014 and is currently planning the International Listening Association’s 2018 convention.
We invest significant time selecting conference themes, locations, accommodations and meeting spaces; finding speakers; planning activities; and relating these to learning objectives and business goals. But something critically important is missing from this list: the kind of listening environment you cultivate.
People rarely design conferences with quality listening in mind. If they do, they often mistake listening for hearing and so they focus on audio quality. Yet, the listening experiences you foster makes your event memorable and enjoyable and provides lasting value to your participants.
Listening is one of the most important business skills today, yet few people know what listening entails. When asked to define listening they frequently respond with something like, “Listening is hearing what someone is saying” or “Listening is taking in a person’s verbal and non-verbal signals.
While both of these definitions describe elements of listening, neither is complete. The International Listening Association defines listening as “the process of receiving, constructing meaning from and responding to spoken and or nonverbal messages.” And the ILA definition neglects to mention the enormous amount of effort and energy listening requires to sustain focused attention over time.
Attending, constructing meaning and responding are perhaps the most important elements of listening for conference participants. Understanding what you can do to help people listen makes it more likely they will leave your conference with value.
Most people are passive, lazy listeners. Words wash over them. They don’t remember people’s names, let alone recall the information they heard after lunch. They are easily distracted and most can’t find the WIFM (what’s in it for me) if a speaker is abstract or overly detailed.
Few people realize the effort and skill needed to listen effectively. They don’t arrive with listening goals nor have they thought about whom they want to meet. In other words, most people haven’t created an information or relationship retention plan.
Even those with the best intentions and good listening skills find conferences difficult environments in which to sustain focus and attention. Multiple days in stimulating settings with a barrage of new people and new information can be overwhelming. Back-to-back sessions, events and marketplace stalls, combined with networking and socializing, can undo even the most committed and skillful listeners.
As a listening trainer, coach and consultant with nearly 20 years of experience helping people listen in a variety of business settings, here are some tips to foster a better listening environment at your next conference.
- As Stephen Covey says, “Begin with the end in mind.” As part of the conference registration process, get people thinking about their listening goals. Get them to reflect on what they will take away. Ask a question like the ones below and use the information to shape your event:
- “What three things are you looking forward to gaining from this conference?”
- “How will your time at this conference improve your work/life?”
- “What burning issue, question or idea do you hope to explore?”
- Insist on speaker introductions that go beyond a list of credentials. Make sure your MC provides the WIFM by building a connection between the speaker, the content of the session and your conference theme or organization’s mission. Invite participants to consider how they personally will use what they are about to experience.
- At the end of each session ask participants to consider what they have gained. Allow time to record; reflect and integrate these insights; summarize notes; post to social media; take a memory-prompting photo; request slides. For listening that lasts people have to commit what they heard to their long-term memory.
- Avoid “talking head” panels whenever possible. Use a variety of formats when planning sessions. People habituate quickly. A variety of formats and session lengths will hold attention better and renew people’s listening stamina. Consider formats similar to TED talks, poster sessions and Pecha Kucha to add variety.
- Listening and digesting do not go well together. Do experiential or interactive learning after lunch.
- Plan a variety of interactive experiences for people to connect with other participants and exchange ideas. Leverage the face-to-face experience. Listening is a powerful relationship development tool. Consider adding World Café’s and other discussion formats that will engage participants and encourage two-way exchange of ideas.
- Open your next conference with a mini listening boot camp on how to listen to get the most out of conference events.
Don’t forget the power of listening to music to set a mood, calm or energize your group.