Listening Skills in Toastmasters

Learning Listening Skills at Toastmasters Toastmasters 101

If half of communication skills is listening skills, how do you learn those in Toastmasters?

Last week, I got three invitations to online meetings scheduled at exactly the same time. I chose to attend one of the – Progressive Messengers – a corporate club in northeast Ohio – for one reason:

I didn’t get a video link.

Why? I don’t know. Was it an error on the part of Sandra Orland, the VPPR? Or was the platform unavailable to me? You can’t see me, but I’m shrugging. I have no idea. But the idea of attending an online meeting via phone was… intriguing. Not the usual.

So I dialed in. And what did I find?

INTRO

Do you want to improve your communication skills – online and in person? Then Toastmasters is for you. We teach public speaking and leadership skills in safe, friendly meetings to help you achieve your goals and dreams in your life. This is Toastmasters 101, and I’m your host, Kim Krajci.

Listening

It’s about the tools, isn’t it?

This week, I’ve been making masks for my family and friends. I’ve sewed many garments over the years, but not so many in the past 10. My sewing machine was pulled out for random repairs but nothing else, so when the call for masks came out – so did my sewing machines.

One of them managed to work fine = for about an hour. Then it didn’t.

In a pandemic when only essential businesses are open in Ohio, was I stuck? Pretty much. I didn’t have the right tools to fix this machine – or the know-how to do so. I could have done permanent damage to that tool by trying to open it up.

So – on a whim, I called the repair shop. “Bring it in, and call us when you get here. We’ll come out and get it,” the owner said. So I did – and when he called me back, he said he’d never seen a machine do what mine did. It will take a week – maybe longer – to get the part and repair it.

The right tools and the right knowledge made a difference between a pile of useless metal and a working sewing machine.

What’s that got to do with an online Toastmaster meeting?

I’m glad you asked.

Calling in to join a video online meeting wasn’t going to be easy – that was part of the challenge. Not that I’m looking for challenges every day, but this one seemed important – because many people don’t have the online option. No computer service, no data, no access – so what’s a phoned-in Toastmasters meeting like?

Mostly I did it because I was curious. How was this going to work?
I didn’t know that everyone else who attended the meeting – which seemed to be all of the club officers – had video.

Listening skills

I’m an interrupter. It’s a very bad habit that I don’t pay enough attention to in order to stop it.

On this phone meeting, I chose to be quiet because I have no idea who’s in the room or what’s going on. The only clues I’m going to get are sound cues – who’s talking? I don’t know their names. Are they taking a deep breath pause or are they waiting for someone else to answer them or to applaud? No visual cues.

So I have to listen closely.

Listening skills are the first thing people learn in Toastmasters. We ask new members to serve in less-vocal roles to get them comfortable. Serve as Timer. Serve as Grammarian or Ah-Counter.

When dealing with people’s fear of public speaking, gradually introducing them to the format of the meeting and demonstrating public speaking skills, acclimatizing them to our program… we also are teaching listening skills.

It’s obvious with grammarian or ah-counter – or even word of the day counter. Each of those tasks focuses on listening. Who hasn’t been swept up in a speech or story and forgotten what they were supposed to be doing? The mindfulness of listening challenges us.

Distractions

Which brings me back to my challenge of participating in the phone-in TM meeting. Like probably most people, when I’m on the phone, I’m likely to be doing other things at the same time, especially at lunch time. But on this call, I was hyper alert. No solitaire game on my tablet. No scribbling notes or doodling. I was in active listen mode.

The respect that these club members in Progressive Messengers had for each other was obvious. This was clearly a group that knew each other well and wanted all members to participate. The prompts were encouraging – “Who would like to go next? You can tell us about what’s entertaining you right now.”

No interrupters. No distractions – just people communicating and listening to each other.

It was wonderful!

What wasn’t wonderful was my discombobulated answer to a prompt.

Toastmasters meetings while sitting on my bed – the disconnect was really disconcerting.

Listening Take-Aways

There are a few take-away lessons I have from this experience – and I want to thank Area Director Sandra Orland and the Progressive Messengers Toastmasters club for the invitation and for inspiring this podcast.

First, online meetings – whether via phone or through an online platform – require a shift in our minds. It’s not just mindset – it’s more than that. You’re not in the actual presence of other people so maybe you aren’t all in.

Everyone has been saying – get dressed, be professional even if you’re at home. Look, my bedroom is not a place I’m going to be professional. It’s my refuge from professional. But if your computer is there and that’s where you’re going to meetings, so you’re confusing yourself. On half is saying – ooh, relax, you’re safe in your bedroom – and the other half is saying “Be professional, it’s a Toastmasters meeting.” This split inside your mental space needs your attention.

What can you do?  Look at the space around you.

What’s disconnecting you from listening?

Right now, on my desk, is a pile of papers, two wrenches that apparently live here now, a packet of seeds that should be planted this week, some loose change… you get the picture. Cleaning up the space – even briefly, just for the meeting – might help you keep the focus you need. As you clean off your desk, even for an hour’s meeting, shift your mind to your meeting. Instead of driving/walking/public transporting to your meeting site when we usually get into the Toastmasters mode, clear off your immediate area and do the same mind shift.

Getting rid of the obvious distractions is simple. Getting the right attitude takes a bit more work.

Second – the tools matter. The tools must be taken care of.

Like the sewing machine, long inattention leads to failure. This applies to skills too.

Listening skills need practice.

Being strictly on the phone does force me to listen more closely. I take more care to be sure that I can interpret the other person’s mood and emotions in the context of the conversation.

Being online does have the option of seeing people’s faces, but what if they don’t have a camera? What if they call in, like I did to Progressive Messengers?

The purpose of our listening tasks is to learn the other half of communication. Communication isn’t just about our ability to speak and convey information – it’s also about hearing and understanding what the other person has to say.

And what they don’t say.

Body Language and Communication

I recently found myself in a situation where I had recommended two weeks ago that a toilet be replaced. The toilet was leaking 10 days later.

If you know me, you’ll know that I didn’t say “I told you so.” I hate it when people do that to me, so I don’t do it. But I’m pretty sure the look on my face and my posture said it for me.

That’s communication too, and according to scientists, it’s actually a bigger part of communication than our voices. So how do we exercise that skill in an online meeting?

That’s what I want to know.

Interrupting

My listening skills and my interpreting body language skills need attention and online meetings – whether via phone or computer – force me to work on them. I can and do mute myself during meetings – which makes it very easy for me to comment, heckle, or otherwise interrupt a speaker and no one knows I’m doing it. *Does that count?

Listening on a phone is natural – that’s what we’ve always done. A lot of us even listen to podcasts – oh, that includes you, right? And you’re sharing this podcast with a friend, right? – so listening via technology is common. Maybe my problem isn’t listening – maybe my problem is not interrupting?

Interrupters – like myself – probably need a ding on a bell to point out when we do it.

Paying attention to the speaker online feels different because the tool I’m using is different. We’re not physically present and that so we have to work differently.

One more thing

You joined Toastmasters for a reason. Why did you join?

Personal dreams? Professional goals?

Last night I was scheduled to give a speech and a very large part of my brain has been reluctant to work on it. I finally sat down to write down some ideas – and 15 minutes before the meeting, I scrapped everything and opted to face the beast in the arena, as it were. I’ve been making masks for my family and friends and have often been thinking about the women who taught me to sew.

So I gave a speech about how to make masks and how much influence on my life one of my mentors had – teaching me how to sew. Half demonstration, half determination in the face of this pandemic – all of it was my effort to strike back at the fear and the anxiety of the situation we all find ourselves in.

I joined Toastmasters for a reason about 10 years ago. Those reasons have changed over the years. You joined Toastmasters for your reasons and probably renewed last October and may be wondering if you should renew right now. I can’t tell you and won’t pitch you all the reasons why I think you should pay your April dues now. But you had your reasons then.

Have those changed?

We may be meeting online. We may be fighting the interior battles of anxiety and fear and we may be unsure about finances right now. All of these may be hard to face – we may be saving our energy and resources for the tasks we need to do to survive.

Don’t let it defeat you. If you can face your fear of public speaking, you can also face the anxiety of what this crisis is bringing to you. Remember your goals. Chase those dreams. If Toastmasters clubs onsite were part of your path to success – then we still are even while we meet online.

I just wrote a message to one of my earliest sewing teachers and thanked her for teaching me – her impact has reached down through decades. You may be one of those people who feel like Pathways and now this whole online meeting is just too much. Please remember our new members – they need you. Your impact will last because of what you do to help others in their leadership and communication skills development.

Let’s all face the beasts in the arena – fear of COVID, fear of public speaking and leadership, fear of change. Let’s do this!

Wrap it up, Kim

I was at an online training recently and one of the attendees was wearing a tiara. Last week, our club president was pressing buttons on his phone so we kept seeing this giant finger come down beside the camera when he muted himself. It looks like the Giant from Jack and the Beanstalk was coming through the screen to crush us.

Online meetings take a new set of skills – listening and interpreting body language through the screen.  And online meetings mean we need to be sensitive to the images we’re sending to the others in the meeting.

How are you doing with your online meetings? What skills do you see yourself developing – or you see others need to work on?

So let me know on the Toastmasters 101 podcast Facebook page.

Toastmasters 101 podcast is a production of Toastmasters District 10. Our music is from Incompetech.filmmusic.io.

Stay healthy. Stay hopeful. Stay home!