Training in the 21st Century

The Importance of Being (Earnestly) Heard

Years ago, when I attended a 12-week course on Facilitation offered by Community at Work, I learned many valuable skills and techniques that I continue to use in both face-to-face and virtual meetings and training events. One of the most important and valuable insights I gained was something Community at Work’s founder, Sam Kaner, told us during the course, “It’s really hard for people to listen before they feel heard.” I came to realize how true, and how important, that statement was as I gained experience facilitating meetings for groups and teams whose members spent their time and energy trying to get their points across. And no one was listening.

I began to understand that one of the most important functions a Meeting Facilitator fills is to hear each person. We do it by paraphrasing what they’ve said to check for understanding (did we “get” what they meant) and by capturing, or synopsizing, each comment in big letters on flipchart paper or projected in large font on a screen. Sometimes, early in this kind of process, I’ve felt that I was the only person in the room who actually heard what anyone said. But again and again—after members feel “heard”—their strident efforts to express their viewpoints become tempered. They begin listening to each other, finding common ground, and communicating again.

Facilitators use many techniques to help group members remember how to listen to each other with respect and empathy. Simple ice breakers (e.g., “Break into pairs and tell each other something no one in the organization knows about you.”) can help people reconnect on a personal level. Mutually agreed-upon groundrules establish guidelines that maintain civility and help create a “safe” environment for discussions. Brainstorming, Nominal Group Process and other idea-generating techniques also enhance safety (“no criticism, just get the ideas out”) and help people start talking. But my experience has confirmed, over and over, this general truth: People can listen once they feel heard.

What techniques or practices have you found that help people “hear” and respond to each other with empathy and respect?

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