Designing Effective Listening Sessions

Listening sessions are commonly used by leaders to hear what’s on people’s minds and engage people in emerging or important topics. These are strategic opportunities that, when designed right, feel very casual and impromptu. Yet when left to chance, they can be ineffective and leave people feeling unheard. How do you design a good session?

  • Define desired outcomes. What is the session purpose, and what do I want people to leave knowing, feeling or doing? Similarly, if preparing to participate in the session, know what you want the leader(s) to know or do on your behalf. This is where it all begins. The answers to these questions will allow you to structure a good session.
  • Structure the session in categories. Category examples might include innovation, people, and technology. These are broad categories that will house the questions you want to tee up or cover.
  • Write some question prompts. These can be used to stimulate conversation around a particular topic and help you fill dead air. Again, all questions should help you advance whatever outcome you desire to achieve.
  • Develop your list of invitees. This should include a mix of people who will bring diversity of thought, feel comfortable speaking in a group, and won’t bring emotion to the table. Keep your sessions small in size for ample participation. Everyone should leave feeling that their voice has been heard. This is important validation of the time spent.
  • Design the timeframe based on the number of topics you’d like to discuss. General rule of thumb is to assume you can get through 4-5 questions in a 1-hour session, including your opening and closing.
  • Choose a moderator who knows how to lead a listening session. This is an art. Think about presidential debates. The moderator uses very little air time to ask a question, and knows how to leave emotion at home. There should be a neutral tone to the questions posed so that participants feel comfortable speaking up. This person also needs to know how to “parking lot” content that is off track, but deserves further conversation or investigation, and draw everyone into the conversation. This person sets the tone for the dialogue and must think on his/her feet with ease.
  • Level set with everyone prior to the session. We recommend doing this by sharing an event one-page backgrounder that provides everyone:
    • Audience/participants/moderator (NOTE: If people don’t know each other, also include brief bio information)
    • Event flow, logistics, and timing
    • Desired outcomes and purpose
    • Question categories and some prompts
  • Measure success! It’s important to learn from your session. What worked? What didn’t go as planned? What would you do differently next time? Did you achieve your desired outcomes? Why or why not? Most important, what did you hear and how does their feedback apply to your planning and decisions moving forward.
  • Communicate gratitude and any next steps. A thank you note is a must. Thank your participants. Let them know their time was well spent, and share any next steps as a result. If you have any immediate actions that you plan to adopt coming out of the session, let people know. You’ll be more likely to get attendees in the future if they know you appreciated and listened to them.
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