Standing in front of the room, I was waiting for a class of 36 attendees to settle in after having just instructed them to move from their original seats into three groups. There were four sets of  tables set up in the room each with six seats across on both sides of the aisle.  I asked the attendees that they seat themselves across the tables facing one another. The activity itself was centered on setting priorities. I stood there listening to the chatter, waiting patiently for the attendees to take notice of me.

I counted to seven, took a deep breath, and began my instructions. My voice got louder as I began to compete for their attention. In that moment I remembered Miss Liston my second grade teacher who used to remain standing in front of our classroom for what seemed like minutes on end waiting and waiting for the class to settle in until 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 drifted my attention back to the present and 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 anyone 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, 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 again step by step, included the time limits, gave them all one minute to strategize with their team members, I repeated the expectations for how long they thought the activity can be completed by,I mentioned the  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”. Okay, ready to strategize, set the timer, ready set go.

One-minute time’s up, okay now start the activity. Team one finished first, great job, team three, next and team two what happened? “Oh we were finished before team one”.

“Sorry, I didn’t hear you shout 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 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 okay to ask a question. I told them everything else, but didn’t give them instruction 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 solving and to collaborate with others, I failed to instruct them on how to listen, and 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 follow 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 takes a lot of energy. Don’t lose out!