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Listen to and Acknowledge Participants - Essential Abilities of Effective Presenters

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Listening is such a simple act. It requires us to be present, and that takes practice, but we don’t have to do anything else. We don’t have to advise, or coach, or sound wise. We just have to be willing to sit there and listen. - Margaret J. Wheatley 



The posting below looks at how to create an effective environment for learners to reveal what they know – and don’t know.  It is from Chapter 5 – Listen to and Acknowledge Participants, in the book, The Choreography of Presenting: The 7 Essential Abilities of Effective Presenters, by Kendell Zoller and Claudette Landry. Published by Corwin, A SAGE Company, 2455 Teller Road, Thousand Oaks, California 91320, (800) 233-9936, Fax: (800) 417 2466, Copyright © 2010 by Corwin. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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Listen to and Acknowledge Participants -- Essential Abilities of Effective Presenters


Two deeply human desires are to be listened to and acknowledged. How we listen and acknowledge contributes much to the quality of our relationships, and how we as presenters listen to and acknowledge participants contributes much to the quality of their learning. 

As we think about participants in a learning environment, two tensions come to mind. First is their internal tension associated with not knowing or discovering that they don’t know. The second is a self-inflicted tension created when, as the result of a well-crafted protocol, a participant publicly reveals to a group of colleagues in a professional setting what he doesn’t know. What is ironic here is that for learning to take place, tension must be present. The key is not to eliminate tension; rather, it is to manage the tension by reframing it from being associated with emotional threat to being associated with cognitive challenge. Not managing that tension can manifest itself in different ways, ranging from harmful levels of stress to behaviors of passive resistance. One situation in which psychological tension often arises is when participants are asked to practice a skill they have not yet perfected. Your role as a presenter is to listen to and acknowledge them as they learn by managing the balance between the cognitive tension of learning and the psychological tension of participating. When well-managed, the cognitive tension is high and the psychological tension is low. When poorly managed, tension is destructive because so much of the participant’s energy is focused on reacting to a high emotional threat. 

Text Box: Your role as presenter is to listen to and acknowledge participants as they learn by managing the balance between the cognitive tension of learning and the psychological tension of participating.

Siegel (2007) elegantly states in The Mindful Brain that “our brains are the social organ of the body” (p. 169). We know adults learn best when constructing their own understanding in an intellectually open and sharing environment that is personally relevant. Oliver Wendell Holmes is credited with saying, “Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never retains its original dimensions.” It is this stretch that generates the inevitable and requisite cognitive tension that is essential to a powerful learning environment. The challenge for the effective presenter is knowing when and how to surface, nurture, and manage the tensions in order to maximize learning and group development. 

In this chapter, we explore and examine recent findings in the field of neurology that support interpersonal intelligence. Second, to gain insight into the more effective practices while recognizing the less effective efforts, we present stories from the good and not-so-good memory vault of past presenters. Third, we look at the skills of listening and acknowledging from a group dynamic perspective, specifically identifying the significant participant behaviors that we want to surface. We close with a few exercises to support your learning. 

The Safe Learning Environment – A State of Relaxed Alertness 

Our experience with adults in professional development settings runs the gamut from folks who participate fully to those who overtly resist activities and choose not to participate. The challenge for the presenter is knowing how to deliberately and strategically create an environment in which all participants intellectually and socially engage in their own learning. Listening and acknowledging can help establish and maintain a state of relaxed alertness (Caine & Caine, 1994), a psychological state in which the emotional threat from revealing what you do not know is low and the cognitive challenge associated with learning new material is high. Because learning is a social event, the presenter must know how and when to create this powerful and artfully balanced learning environment. 

The good news is that ensuring relaxed alertness and managing psychological tensions are possible and probable when thoughtfully choreographed. As you begin to understand more deeply the skills that support how to listen and acknowledge, your perspective about how you view tension may also shift. Tension, like conflict, is not a barrier that blocks learning and participation; rather, it is a fuel that propels learners as they navigate through fields of cognitive challenge and seize their own learning. 

Tension is potential energy, the stored energy that when channeled effectively can be used to support learning. Without tension, there is no learning. Mortimer Adler, editor of the original series Great Books of the Western World, knew the importance of intellectual tension when he said, “The purpose of learning is growth, and our minds, unlike our bodies, can continue growing as long as we live.” For Adler, this statement served as a mission that gave him life-long permission to acknowledge what he did not know and to reveal what he was learning. By holding his statement as a core assumption, we accept the challenge to create the pathways for adults to grow. We not only mean this metaphorically, we also mean it literally – in the sense of neurological pathways. 

The Neuro-Connection 

Neuroscience research conducted in the 1990s overturned an earlier deeply held assumption that brain plasticity decreased throughout an individual’s lifetime and, at some point in midlife, ceased to exist. The good news is that we now know the brain is capable of modifying neurological pathways throughout our lives. This neuroplasticity allows the brain to “reshape and reorganize these networks, at least partly, in response to increased or decreased use of these pathways” (Willis, 2008, p. 426). Willis and fellow researchers have demonstrated that “after repeated practice, the connections [between neurons] grow stronger, that is, repeated stimulation makes each neuron more likely to trigger the next connected neuron” (p. 426). The tension between not knowing and knowing can be thought of as the energy source that fuels the physical reshaping and reorganizing of our brains. 

What does this mean to presenters? Several things. First and foremost, all people can learn, no matter what their age. The key is to create an environment in which the brain is receptive to the messages presented. What researchers have discovered is that when adults experience cognitive dissonance, their receptivity to new ideas and new learning drops and the thinking part of their brain may even turn off all together. By effectively listening to and acknowledging participants, you can proactively short-circuit the downshifting cascade to maintain a receptive state of mind. 

Like you surely have, we have seen many presenters who are effective at listening and acknowledging yet are unconscious of the specific nonverbal and linguistic patterns used. What that means is that when they are having a good day and have a malleable group, they are effective. But when they are having a bad day and the group is pushing back, they are not able to reproduce their effective strategies and moves. By relying on intuition to accomplish listening to and acknowledging participants, the unconscious presenter may lack a strategic advantage and may also experience her own downshift event when faced with a contentious group of resisters. 

Bob Garmston, an outstanding presenter and mentor of ours, is especially gifted in this ability to listen and acknowledge. We deconstruct his choreography here to illustrate the dance of a presenter who is effective in this area. To the untrained eye, his dance appears effortless. His dance acknowledges the participant and, most important, involves and acknowledges the group. You may find it comforting to know that many presenters find this particular ability requires a lot of practice with many rehearsals in order to achieve a competent level of automaticity. 

Learning new steps is a lot like breaking in new shoes: they pinch a little at first before starting to feel comfortable. Our suggestion is to give yourself some grace, be patient, and take it one step at a time. Although these moves are deceptively simple, they are not easy to master. It takes practice to reach the appearance of effortlessness. Once each skill is mastered, begin to combine them to master their dynamic interplay and influence. By being conscious and competent in this way, you will be able to replicate the dance at will. 

Pausing, Paraphrasing, and Probing and Inquiring 

Standing still, maintaining eye contact, and breathing low while a participant speaks is only the beginning of listening and acknowledging. The next steps include what you do following their contribution. Three fundamental skills are essential to demonstrating listening: pausing, paraphrasing, and probing and inquiring. Together, these skills contribute to participants’ thinking and group development by causing them to engage in the experience of learning and extend their learning to personally and professionally practical applications. 


We learned about how to effectively use the pause in earlier chapters. The same patterns of pause apply in this situation; however, the intention of the pause when we listen and acknowledge is to support participants’ thinking and inclusion in the content. The effective pause is used when a participant completes the sharing of an idea. In the story we just shared, the presenter often and initially responds with “Thank you,” using an approachable voice and a palm-up gesture, followed by a low-breathing three-second pause. Often the breath is visually overt, meaning that the presenter breathes deep enough so that participants can see his shoulders lift and chest expand. Participants often mirror the presenter’s breathing pattern, and a mirrored breathing pattern is evidence of rapport. Their calming breath also supports their thinking. 


This skill requires eloquence and nuance. It is the paraphrase that ultimately provides participants with evidence that they were listened to. Once they know this, the paraphrase reinforces the acknowledgement. 

An effective paraphrase is one that reflects back to a participant the content of his comment with matching energy, linguistic modality, and emotional state. Such a well-delivered paraphrase is the apotheosis of rapport. The intention is to surface the participant’s meaning in such a way that he recognizes the match between his own perceived meaning and the presenter’s understanding. Paraphrasing is not about agreeing with the participant’s idea, though; it is about understanding it. When the presenter establishes a clear and common understanding of the participant’s comment, the group is free to consider the idea from a common understanding, which promotes thinking and participation. 

The paraphrase is a sophisticated skill that requires the choreography of discrete syncopated steps within a fluid and dynamic environment. Because it is intended to reflect the content, energy, language, and emotion of the participant, it is best delivered using you language rather than I language. For instance, consider the following participant comment from a lesson study session using student work samples. Two paraphrases are suggested. The second paraphrase is delivered in a less recommended format. As you read the two paraphrases, think about how a participant might feel about being listened to and acknowledged. 

Participant 1: I really like that the parents don’t doubt me in this matter. 

Paraphrase 1a (more effective): Ah, you’re appreciative of their support. 

Paraphrase 1b (less effective): So I am hearing you say that you like not being bothered by the parents. 

Participant 2: I love the program. But to implement it properly we would need more time, materials, training, and money. 

Paraphrase 2a (more effective): So for you it’s about having enough resources. 

Paraphrase 2b (less effective): What I hear you say is that you need more time, materials, training, and money. 

Participant 3: This is the kind of program I can really get excited about – it challenges my students, respects their independence, and promotes collaboration. 

Paraphrase 3a (more effective): So you really value self-reliance for your students. 

Paraphrase 3b (less effective): I think you are excited about this program because it challenges your students and respects their independence. 

Probing and Inquiring 

After effectively using a paraphrase that clarifies the ideas being shared, probing and inquiring are two forms of questioning that can move participants’ thinking to deeper levels. The probing question focuses and narrows, while the inquiry may broaden perspectives. 

Using the paraphrase “So you really value self-reliance for your students,” an example of a probing question or statement is “For you, what are some examples of self-reliant behavior?” And to ensure that this is a thought-provoking probe, an approachable voice and palm-up gesture are used to sustain rapport and support the continued flow of information among participants and presenter. 

An example of an inquiry that may follow the paraphrase “I think you are excited about this program because it challenges your students and respects their independence” is “In addition to independence, what might be some other benefits to students using this program?” In this example, the inquiry suggests a cognitive lens that widens participants’ perspective and opens their thinking to consider what they might not have considered before. Inquiring, when done well with appropriate nonverbal congruence, can seem liberating to participants because it surfaces options, as opposed to limiting or restricting them. 


Caine, R.N., &  Caine, G. (1994). Making connections: Teaching and the human brain. Boston: Pearson Learning. 

Siegel, D. J. (2007). The mindful brain: Reflection and attunement in the cultivation of well-being. New York: W. W. Norton. 

Willis, J. (2008). Building a bridge from neuroscience to the classroom. Phi Delta Kappan, 89, 424-427.