Standing in front of the room, I was waiting for a class of 36 attendees to settle in having just instructed them to move from their seats into three groups. There were four sets of tables set up with six seats each across on both sides of the aisles, and I asked that they seat themselves across the tables facing one another. The activity itself was centered on setting priorities. I stood in front of the room listening to the chatter, waiting patiently for them to notice me.
I counted to seven, took a breath, and began my instructions. My voice got louder as I began to compete for their attention. I remembered Miss Liston from second grade who used to just remain standing in front of our classroom for what seemed like minutes on end waiting and waiting for the class to settle in as some second grader caught sight of her and shhhhed everyone to “pay attention.” That is what this felt like. How could a group of employees be that oblivious to what was taking place at the front of the room?
I began my instructions again, this time in a quieter voice and worded differently than the first set of instructions. Nothing. Why aren’t they listening? I was speaking loudly. I was not mumbling or using unfamiliar words.
I paused again, interrupted myself mid-sentence, looked around the room. It’s not that any one person was being difficult, they were all talking. I thought about any roadblocks that I might have created. Third time’s the charm.
I began again with my instructions, this time with the time-honored phrase “settle down, settle down.” Slowly, the attendees were paying attention. I thanked them for their enthusiasm and reviewed the instructions step by step, set time limits, gave them all one minute to strategize with the team members, expectations for how long they thought the activity would take to be completed, ground rules for winning, and who from each team can be involved. Winners were to be decided by the first team to shout out “Done.” OK, ready to strategize, set the timer – Ready, Set, Go.
One-minute time’s up, now start the activity. Team One finished first. “Great job, Team One!” Team Three finished next, and Team Two, I asked them “What happened?” “Oh, we were finished before Team One.”
“Sorry, I didn’t hear you shout that you were done.”
“We didn’t hear you say that we needed to do that.”
I prepared myself for the litany of excuses, which came at me full steam ahead with things like, “You didn’t tell, us, you didn’t say that, that’s not what I heard you say, we didn’t know.”
So, I asked, “if you didn’t hear me why didn’t you ask me a question?” “Ask?” “Yes,” I replied, “Ask.” “Well, we didn’t know we could ask.”
Ah, that’s it. I didn’t tell them it’s OK to ask a question. I told them everything else, but didn’t give them instructions on how to listen. Even though it’s how they would be able to take in instructions, and even though listening was essential to them being able to problem solve and to collaborate with others, I failed to instruct them on how to listen. As a result, they assumed that they, in fact, did understand what I meant and didn’t ask questions.
Assumptions were made. Team Two did not fully understand the instructions, so they naturally filled in the missing information by making up a story. In this case, the problem was that their story was incorrect, which caused Team Two to lose. Assumptions prevented these attendees from truly hearing what my instructions were. Assumptions acted like noise in their brains. Assumptions could have been prevented. The fact is, they didn’t know what the truth was unless they asked. Listening is not passive. It requires real attention and purpose, and it takes a lot of energy. Don’t lose out!