Tilting the seesaw

Bringing people together necessitates an interest or care in something to gather around. It also necessitates the often harsh recognition that what we care about, others likely don’t. Or at least not yet. To make change truly stick is to take what is important to us and help it become important to others. When that happens the need to repeat our message decreases. We achieve scale and true efficiency when others share it for us. 

When others advance our ideas and produce more gatherings, ownership of the experience shifts. It no longer belongs to one person. It belongs to everyone. This is both the essence and core challenge of organizational change. It is also the core challenge of leadership.

The transfer of not only information but care and ownership is what I call “tilting the seesaw”. And in order for any change we seek to stick, the seesaw needs to tilt. 

When we first look to bring people together, the seesaw is naturally tilted towards us. That’s because gathering brings with it inherent power differences. When a leader or someone with authority gathers us, the differences are amplified. These differences are signaled in three ways: 

  1. Overemphasis on information: the expectation that one has something others don’t
  2. A stage or set up of the room: the physical and symbolic distance this creates 
  3. Authority: an expectation that someone in charge has the answer we are waiting for

On a stage far away, those who gather often seem not only physically but symbolically far away from their employees. They can also set the implicit expectation that an external expert has the answer. Taken together, what this can produce is neediness of someone or something else to get us from point A to point B. And while the information may tilt, ownership and care often don’t. 

These differences also signal distance. To tilt the seesaw is to utilize these inherent differences to create more connection instead of distance. Here the role of leader or gatherer shifts from simply an information broker to a connection builder. The model of leadership shifts as well. While the old model may have been, ‘we will wait for the gatherer to tell us the answer’, the new model is ‘the gatherer will lead the room to their own answer’. This is achieved when we make our audience the hero instead of us, or our information.

Rather than waiting for a gatherer to tell us what to do, sometimes repeatedly, the gatherer unlocks the capability and abilities of those already in the room. Rather than people needing you or your information, we can create a joint sense that we need each other. After all, why are we gathering if we don’t need an audience?

To believe the audience is the hero also requires the belief that people are capable of growth and change. It also requires the admission that they may not want or need us in the way we thought. They often don’t need us to fix or prod or repair. What they want is to be inspired, engaged, and connected — not only to you but to each other and themselves. It is this core belief about people that drives the choices we make with our gatherings.

Leaving room in the suitcase

We’ve all done it. We’ve packed our suitcases to the brim for a vacation thinking we’ll definitely need everything and anything that won’t put us over the weight limit.

And then when it comes time to bring a souvenir or two home…there’s no space.

If we want to bring something home with us for keeps or to share, we can’t…there’s no room. 

The temptation to overpack extends beyond our travel habits.

When it comes to sharing ideas, content, or an experience with others, it’s all too easy to ‘overpack the suitcase’. 

Be it a class, a keynote, an offsite, an executive presentation, a conference, everything but the kitchen sink ends up in our gathering for various reasons, including:

  1. We don’t know what we’ll actually need
  2. We don’t know where we’re heading
  3. We want to be over-prepared.
  4. We think it’s about us

All of these temptations stem from a mindset that falsely focuses inward.

When we gather, we want to take people to a new destination. That involves leaving room and leaving space for them to come with us. There has to be room in the suitcase.

The best gatherings, like the best experiences (be it travel, or otherwise) leave space for:

  1. The unexpected
  2. An audience’s contribution and connection
  3. Emotion 

Leaving space allows people to digest material during or after, in a hallway or in the chatter and patter before a gathering starts. It can be done with a simple question or prompt or even a breath. It can turn the responsibility or a bit of ownership over to your fellow travelers to invite them in, or destroy the distance between you on stage and them in the audience. 

Without room, an audience lacks the ability to see themselves in what you’ve shared. They don’t know how to join in, how to care, or how to connect. They only know to consume. But, for what?

Our success is not measured by how much space, time, or slides we take up. It is measured by our ability to bring people with us, and that necessitates leaving room for them to join if they so choose. 

What is mine is yours

“I’m going to tell you a story. But first, I want to tell you about a couch”.

This is the first line from comedian Mike Birbiglia’s most recent show, “The New One”.

While the audience is expecting to hear a personal story about parenthood, Birbiglia starts where the most adept facilitators do: he makes the personal, universal.

While not everyone is a parent, everyone has a couch. This choice allows his gathering to start in a neutral, non-polarizing place and immediately gets everyone on the same page. Once he has that implicit first agreement and head nod, he can and does lead us elsewhere.

Entertainers, educators, and leaders share a unique gift and opportunity to bring people together by transforming something personal into the universal.

What’s mine can also be yours.

Though you’ve probably gathered to hear them, they don’t start with their experience. They begin with ours.

This small choice to zoom out first exemplifies the key to creating a personalized gathering: The audience feels seen and can see themselves in the material.

This choice is especially important at the start of a gathering – whether it’s a class, a workshop, an offsite, etc. This is when we are often starting with zero; a blank screen, a quiet room, or a gathering people don’t actually want to be at, or one where we don’t have buy in, or one where we are dealing with a challenging or controversial topic.

The easiest way in to the hardest starts is to find connection first.

When we make the choice to see who we have gathered it can look, feel, and sound like this:

  1. Heavy use of the word ‘you’ or ‘we’ as we if are literally reaching into the audience to connect our experience with theirs. The material becomes generalizable to who is in the room so that it’s not ‘my’ problem, it’s ours, and we can all feel it together. This is what musicians do when they explain a song before they sing it… “this is a song about…”
  2. When an audience reacts, the gatherer does too. They are right there with you. When an audience gasped at a particular part of the story, Birbiglia exclaimed, “I know!” in agreement. In many cases, an audience wants to be seen as much as the gatherer does. That is often why people shout things out at comedy show. They want to connect their experience with yours.

When we make the choice to gather we aren’t just coming to hear someone speak. We want to find a connection between what they have to say, and our experience.

The best gatherers know that the story they are telling, the material they are sharing, or the change initiative they are leading is not about them.  They are constantly crafting their work to figure out, how is this about the audience, and how does this make us feel closer to each other.

What’s mine can be ours.

The push of fear versus the pull of hope

You’ll get more flies with honey, the old adage goes.

But when we need someone to do something, especially something important and worthwhile, sometimes this approach simply encourages others to keep expecting ‘honey’ in return for their efforts.

Honey is one strategy. Fear is another.

When something is extra important, either to our success or our ego or status, we don’t always reach for sweetness. We reach for a scare, a stick.

This compliance-based approach is likely one we’ve all experienced. We are warned or told what will happen if we don’t comply. This approach often makes the messenger seem large, and the audience small. Instead of bringing people together around something bigger than ourselves, fear forces us to whisper, or work in isolation.

Sure, compliance has its place.

This is the musician who wants others to listen to their song, the educator who wants their students to finish their homework, or the manager who asks employees to complete a one-time task. Here, securing compliance is enough. It’s something people either did or didn’t do.

Yet, this approach yields a short-term reward, not a long-term sustainable gain.

When we invest resources (like, time, energy, or money) in an initiative, we are often hoping for more than compliance; we aim to truly engage others around an idea that we want them to take up as their own and spread.

When engagement is our desired outcome, what’s important to us, may not be important to others, unless we show why.

This could be a new company ritual, a management behavior, or a change in how the business operates.

Fear is a natural and often necessary part of change and transformation. It involves asking people to go to a place they are often terrified to go to, or let go of.

Though it can originate from fear, a strong why ultimately relies on hope.

Rather than lean on fear or what will happen if don’t comply, we can first engage others around a universal truth. Choosing to pull on hope versus push on fear means painting a vision of a future others want to be a part of. Hope is something we can rally around together.

Inviting others in: How to create duets instead of solos

“What do I need to know about you to make our time successful?”

The answers flew across the room, one after the other: “We like group work”, “We covered X last week”, “Some of us are international students”. On the second-to-last day of a packed graduate seminar, a different professor appeared at the door. Rather than plow through with material, she turned the class from a solo into a duet with a simple opening question.

We make explicit and implicit choices all of the time about who we want to follow, and what gatherings we want to be a part of, whether we’re buying a ticket to a comedy show,  enrolling in a training class, or to be a part of an organization.

Whether we are the gatherer or the ones being gathered, we have the power to shape the quality of the gathering with the choices we make. And, we are making these choices constantly, often in split-seconds, that either pull others in or push them away from the moments that actually seek to bring people together.

What this professor did is akin to what great gatherers do: they seek to destroy the distance between themselves and the audience to create intimacy, connection, and ultimately, engagement.

Crafting a duet instead of a solo requires a few key choices:

Lower your status: It’s tempting to believe that to gather others we need to have more status than our audience. Yes, an audience needs to feel that you have the reigns and are in control. But when we signal, “I’m just like you”, we are able to more effortlessly join you on the journey you’re about to take us on. This can be through a self-deprecating joke, or commenting on a common experience you all share (bad traffic on the way in, the weather, the news). Start from commonalities instead of highlighting differences.

Invite others in: To be an engaging gatherer is to firmly believe that an audience is as crucial an ingredient as the material you’re sharing. And, an audience wants to be seen as much as the gatherer does. That’s one reason why people shout things out at comedy show: they want to connect their experience with yours. The best gatherers know that the story they are telling or the content they are sharing is not about them. They constantly craft their work to figure out,” how is the material about the audience?”.

Connect to what they care about: Talking isn’t the only way to keep track of an audience’s engagement. The power of an in person experience lies is the human desire for connection. “This is a song about…” isn’t just a phrase musicians use to introduce songs. No matter our gathering we can find a way to connect what we’re sharing with something universal. This song goes out to anyone, who… might understand or connect with something I also care about, and thus creating an additive experience we all share.

When we make our gatherings solely about the person on the stage, we miss an opportunity for others to take our cause on and take it up. We also eschew them of the responsibility of being a part of the experience, or even more, owners of the experience. After all, if an audience didn’t want to be needed they could have stayed home. 

Make your audience visible

“Make your thinking visible”, is a phrase I learned from a dear mentor, and one I repeat often to other facilitators and those who gather.

Sharing (some, not all of) what’s in your head and what you’re doing with the audience or students in the room serves a few key purposes. 1) It promotes safety, and reduces uncertainty so that others trust where you’re taking them 2) it helps destroy the distance between you and the audience 3) it pulls them into the unique, singular moment you’re sharing.

When we make our thinking visible it helps an audience feel that they are too.

After all, if your audience is invisible, then there is no reason for them to be in the room. They could be anyone, or anything.

Here are some questions and observation tactics you can use to determine the visibility of your audience:

  1. What energy is the audience giving you? Do you use it, or ignore it? How can you encourage more?
  2. What direction does the energy flow? Hint: it’s not enough for it to flow between an individual participant and the person on the stage, or only between those on the stage
  3. Does your audience talk or engage with each other before or after your gathering? If not, what is that silence telling you?
  4. Do you need your audience? If the answer is yes, how do you show them?

When we treat an audience as invisible, they sit, waiting to be told what to do, or what to think. In these instances, the flow of information and energy is often one-way. 

Making your audience visible is often a key difference between a gathering that is purely meant to entertain or inform, versus one meant to educate, and even engage.

We all gather for a reason. Do you know why your audience came? The five people who had their question answered by the speaker feel visible. How can you see the rest?

It’s not enough to create something for our audience. Create something with them instead. 

Destroy the Distance

No matter our upbringing, beliefs, culture, or daily routines, we’re never completely alone. Throughout the course of our days, years, and lifetime, we all find ourselves in various forms of gathering.

We gather at our workplaces to achieve a common mission. We gather into classrooms, lecture halls, and institutions to be inspired, enlightened, and provoked. We gather in a theater to share a piece of art with people we might not know. And, if we’re lucky, we gather together a set of individuals to achieve something spectacular.

Whether we gather in an office, a classroom, or a theater, we look to others to lead us somewhere, from point A to point B.

This experience brings with it all sorts of familiar dynamics and expectations between an audience, and those on a proverbial stage.

After all, a leader needs a follower. An educator needs a student. A comedian needs an audience.

Though both roles need each other to be successful, we tend to assume one has higher status than the other. With this assumption comes certain choices about how we lead a gathering. For example, we often over index on our expertise, or our content.

This becomes the speech that doesn’t land. The lesson that doesn’t stick. The song that doesn’t connect. Messages without meaning make the audience seem even further away.

When we gather others, we can instead make deliberate choices that destroy the distance between the gatherer and the audience.

We can do this by focusing not just on the material, but on how we deliver it. It starts by changing our assumption about who our audience is and what they are gathered for.

When we consider that our audience, whether it’s our followers, students, etc, is of higher status than us, we work to more directly connect our work with their intentions instead of ours.

Though we need an audience, it is too easy to view them as replaceable or invisible. The best gatherings know that not only is the audience of high importance, they are the hero.

If our gatherings are meant to move people from A to B, they require more consideration than slides, a syllabus, or a set list.

We choose to gather in-person rather than another medium to see and feel the impact of our message. If this is true, our focus need to take the needs of our audience into account. We can make them feel needed and nurtured, so that they won’t just gather once, they’ll come back.

What 618 million hits can tell you about how to lead

A Google search for the term, ‘leadership training’ pulls up 618 million results. ‘Good leadership training’, 274 million. ‘Useful’, 146. ‘Effective’, 67 million.

If you’re looking to become a better leader and confused as to where to turn, you’re not alone.

What separates good from the rest, or effective from not?

To narrow our search we often turn to those we trust, whether it is the advice of experts or like-minded friends and colleagues.

As a learning and development professional, I am often asked to help match employees with learning opportunities. Though, more often, my job involves hiring and bringing leadership training into my organization.

Just like the words we type into a search field, we can learn much about the quality of our investment by the questions we ask.

Often times our questions stay at the rational-only level. They focus on content. What is the class about? What will we learn? Can I see the slides? Here, what we are often looking for is a guarantee that money in equals learning out.

But, in an age when content is at our fingertips and on-demand, a trainers role becomes more than sharing information.

What makes some learning opportunities more effective than others depends less on the material, and more on the context in which it is received and used.

That is why friends and colleagues often recommend learning opportunities not only because of the material, but because of how and if they personally connected to it.

Content is only one component. But if all we have is a hammer, then everything is a nail. And, we’d be failing to ask the carpenter about the other tools in their toolbox and how they use them.

In order for an in-person learning to be ‘effective’, the material needs to match the moment.

“What separates you from everyone else?”, is a question I always ask. Furthermore, I want a story. Rest assured I’m not looking for unique and different. Here I’m focused on someone’s understanding of not only the content, but the context they’d be teaching in. It is the science, and the art.

Yes, if we want ‘good’ training, it is possible that any of the 618 million results are right for you. But we’ll narrow and improve our search by focusing more on ‘who’, ‘why’, and ‘how’, than ‘what’. Content is cheap. Context is worth paying for.