Why did I choose this tool?
I find the common definition of listening skills to be too narrow, mostly just focusing on listening to another person, and I have seen how helpful it has been for me to listen to environmental cues as well. I believe that we are highly impacted by our environments in everyday situations, and especially when we are leading groups of people through an experience. While I believe this, I believe many of us are unaware of how the environment impacts us, and so this is about getting better at noticing things in the environment and how they may be impacting us, the participants, and the overall learning experience.
How does this apply to being a trainer?
As a trainer, we will be guiding groups of people through a variety of experiences in a diverse set of environments. Each environment will present different challenges, including space constraints, temperature issues, sound issues, technology issues, etc. These variables will impact us and the participants before, during, and after the sessions, and the more we are aware of the environmental factors, the more we can predict and respond to the group’s changing thoughts and feelings and adapt the session to create the best learning environment. For example, if we run a session with a Powerpoint presentation during the day and we notice that people are struggling to see the screen (i.e., leaning in, moving from their seats to the floor close to the screen, trying to copy off what other people are writing), we can adjust the situation by closing the curtains, pointing the projector towards a different wall, turning up the brightness on the projector, or even asking the audience if they’d prefer us to turn off the projector and speak without it. However, if we don’t notice that people are struggling to see the screen, the participants may get frustrated and after struggling, tune out our presentation without telling us why. This is but one example of many that could occur—the ability to sense the environmental factors and the group’s reactions to them can help us resolve issues before they become bigger issues 🙂
Often when we think about listening skills we think about listening to another person. This activity is about listening to the environment. As trainers, we are often facilitating processes with many moving parts—humans, chairs, flipcharts, doors, markers, etc.—and these parts can influence the learning experience.
Furthermore, when we think about listening we mostly think about using our sense of hearing—however, listening itself is an activity that can involve all of our senses. Hearing, seeing, feeling, smelling, tasting, touching, balance, spatial awareness, and many others can help us become more aware of what is happening around us.
Some environmental variables to notice
- Outside noises
- Machines in the background
- Creaking doors
- Body odor
- Fresh air
- Cramped together
- Far from each other
- Ceiling height
- Seating width
- Natural lighting
- Flashing lights
- Projecting lights
- Difference in lighting between spaces
Examples of the impact of environmental variables
- We want to create a quiet environment for reflection, but there is loud music coming from outside of the room.
- We want to create a space for people to play and move around, but the ceiling is low and prevents people from jumping up too much.
- We want to create a slow relaxing atmosphere, but the light is very bright, shining into everyone’s eyes.
- We want to have participants interact closely with each other, but half of the people in the room are sniffling and may infect each other.
- We want participants to pay attention to each other’s speeches, but the temperature is cold and people are shivering.
- We want to run any workshop, and then we smell fire.
- We want to run a workshop indoors where participants are engaged, and then the sun finally starts to shine after five days of no sunshine.
Adapting to the environment
One key element of this skill is to listen openly to the environment and then adapt accordingly. Many of the environmental variables are outside of our control and instead of blaming them, we can learn to use them. If the group has been inside all week and you notice that the sun is finally starting to shine, instead of forcing people to try to pay attention inside, we could shift the group to do an exercise outside. As a side note, this is how I developed the main exercise below. On It’s Up to Me 1, we had been inside most of the week and I noticed that people were constantly going outside for the breaks, and I adjusted to make the listening exercise outside.
Sometimes adapting to the environment doesn’t require us to change our workshop and is as simple as bringing the environmental variable to the attention of everyone. For example, if the temperature is getting colder, instead of going inside, we can say to everyone, “Yes, I know that the temperature is getting a little colder, and so I just wanted to let you know that we’ll only be out here for 10 more minutes. Is it OK if we stay out here for that much time?”
How can this help listen without judgment?
Many times the environmental factors will nudge us into judging others without us being aware—knowing that the environment influences us and how we presently see the world can help us see others more openly. Perhaps the example above about the projector can better demonstrate this. If, as a trainer, I see that participants are tuning out from my presentation, I might judge them for being lazy, inattentive, uncaring, or something else. I also might judge myself for being boring, amateur, confused, or something else. However, if I realize that the participants are tuning out not because of something inherent to them, or something inherent to me, but rather because they can’t see the screen because there’s too much light in the room, I might see them and myself just as humans who are trying our best in an environment that makes it difficult. I think we frequently judge people for their behavior without recognizing how the environment strongly influences that behavior.
In conclusion, I believe listening to the environment is one of the most important skills we can have in balancing group dynamics and I’m excited to hear how this helps you move forward in your training career.
In doing the exercise below:
What did you notice?
What was difficult for you?
What was easy for you?
What did you notice about the group dynamics?
How easy/difficult was it for you to stay together as a group?
How did you communicate with each other?
How hard was it to stay silent the whole time?
How does this apply to being a trainer?
- What is one time when the environment impacted your training in a way you didn’t predict?
- What is one time when you adapted to the environment and it went very well?
- What is one time when a participant judged you for something that was actually the result of the environment affecting you?
- What is one time when you judged a participant for something that was actually a result of the environment affecting them?
How to apply it in everyday life?
This Listening to the Environment activity has simple instructions (see below) and yet it can be difficult to do. It is about staying together in a group, staying silent, and paying attention to time. By staying together in a group, it challenges us to communicate in novel ways. By staying silent, it challenges us to use our other senses to explore our surroundings. By having a time constraint, it challenges us to stay on time in an environment that may cause us to easily lose track of time.
The rules of the activity are thus:
- Go outside with your group and stay with your group the whole time.
- You have to stay silent the whole time.
- Come back inside in 20 minutes.
Notes on the rules:
- I’d suggest being in a group of at least 2 people and no more than 7, with the ideal number being 4-5 people.
- You are allowed to communicate with each other in non-verbal ways, however no speaking allowed.
- I’d suggest at least 20 minutes, so that people have enough time to get through the awkwardness.
- Try this activity by yourself.
- Try this activity for 5 minutes, staying inside, while on a date.
- Try this activity for 5 minutes, staying inside, with your family.