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Listening is one of the most powerful tools in the facilitation kit – hearing what’s been said, what isn’t being said and the spaces in between.

However, it’s not just the facilitator who needs to listen – sometimes the participants in a meeting need some help really ‘hearing’ what they and others are saying.

Recently I asked a group I was working with to do a deep reflection and listening exercise at the end of the first day of a three day meeting.

We’d spent the day taking stock of difficult external challenges, including a huge loss of funding, and assessing organisational support for their work, which seemed to be ebbing. The mood was low.

I invited each of them to take 10 minutes to make some notes about their personal reflections on everything they’d heard. Then, working in groups of three, each person spoke for 5 – 6 minutes, while two others listened intently.

After each person had spoken, the group was asked to write up their answer to the question: What directions do you see emerging for our work?

The answers were astonishing. The overwhelming sense of the groups was that the problem was not about funding cuts or lack of support from others – it was their own lack of a clearly explained vision for their work, and a leadership vacuum in their own group. And they saw the potential to turn these things around.

Until this point they had focused on the problems as being caused by “other people”. Now they were taking ownership and preparing to address the root causes. The room was alive with relief, hope and the realisation that there were things they did in fact have control over.

This understanding transformed the meeting. Without taking the time to listen to their own inner voices, and without a process to share those thoughts, we’d have missed these insights and carried on in a conventional planning meeting. It’s amazing what we can hear when we take the time to listen.