Is Anybody Listening? Designing Events that Foster Active Learning

Top 7 Tips for Infusing Community Into Your Events

​We’re all guilty of occasionally zoning out. Consider the last time you attended a packed conference session where you were not truly present in the room. Perhaps you were distracted by worries about other priorities or furtively glancing at incoming messages on your phone. Regardless of the cause, the result is the same: You missed information the speaker was trying to convey.

There is genuine power in the art of listening, and lately there has been a great deal of interest in how to successfully shut out the noise and actively hear what others have to say to us.

Raquel Ark, the president of the International Listening Association and a communications facilitator, recently told PCMA Convene magazine: “Listening is a skill that we need to learn now, but there is only a ‘small minority’ doing it.” However, she told PCMA that there’s a great deal of interest there is in fostering better listening. “It’s one of the most multidisciplinary fields,” Ark said. “The common ground is that we’re all interested in advancing this topic. The research in listening has increased tremendously. The more we learn, the more we realize what we don’t know yet.”

Ark stressed that in a conference/convention setting, it’s critical to get participants to connect in small, intimate groups. If it is a small event, pairing people together will help to build connections and trust. If the event is large, creating cohorts or groups that meet at the beginning and end of the day to check in and check out will also help people actively listen to each other.

Ark also recommends setting up listening circles and structured listening activities between sessions. “Listening circles are very simple, very easy, very powerful. Then everyone’s voice is heard,” she told PCMA. “Nobody has to speak if they don’t want to. They can just listen if they want to, and everyone’s included. And their listening does impact the group – having listeners helps people speak better.”

Building Trust

By encouraging active listening, we also foster empathy and trust. A thoughtful listener will withhold judgement and will ask clarifying questions. They will encourage others to share their ideas, experiences, and perspectives, and will seek to find common ground. Active listening also opens more opportunities for conflict resolution and problem-solving, as solutions aren’t dictated by one person, but instead are discovered in a more organic and collaborative fashion.

Experts agree that there are three key elements of active listening:

Cognitive: Pay attention to all of the information you are receiving in order to better comprehend and integrate what is being said.

Emotional: Stay calm and practice compassion – manage emotional reactions such as boredom or irritation.

Behavioral: Make sure to convey interest in what is being said – from maintaining eye contact to simply nodding your head and expressing comprehension, both verbally and nonverbally.

In the Here and Now

From one-on-one conversations to big events, active listening is a skill that requires practice. However, once we’re able to shut out everything that isn’t relevant to the current moment, that’s where the real magic happens. The following behaviors are proven tactics for fostering listening. Think about how you can incorporate them into the design of your next event:

  • Put phones on silent.
  • Close laptops.
  • Create a welcoming, distraction-free space.
  • Take notes to stay grounded in the moment and reflect on what is being said.
  • Frame questions you would like to ask to learn more about a topic.
  • Remember that deep breathing helps us to be focused, present, and better able to fully process what is being said.