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Empathy: The Secret Ingredient for Successful Business Meetings

January 30    |    Brad Holst
Three ways you can use empathy to increase meeting productivityNever forget that a business meeting is a gathering of humans–emotional beings with deep, strongly-held feelings that follow them wherever they go.

We’ve all experienced the frustration and annoyance of unproductive meetings. Perhaps you have a coworker who routinely tries to drag a meeting off into their own topic. Or perhaps, you have multi-taskers, who while they are physically present, are more focused on getting their other work done than engaging in the meeting. Or there’s the veteran team member who’s always the first to shoot down any new ideas. Maybe you’ve experienced for yourself what it’s like to simply not feel heard. In all of these cases, the result is not just frustration, but also a collective waste of time, energy, and ultimately, resources.

There’s a lot of great advice out there about how to make meetings more productive in general, but with a new decade comes the opportunity to shift your mindset. That's my challenge to you: make the meetings you attend more effective by personally tapping into that universal human characteristic that naturally fosters teamwork and collaboration within the workplace, empathy.

What is empathy and why does it belong in a meeting?

At its heart, empathy is all about demonstrating understanding of someone else’s perspective and being able to put yourself in their place. Used to its full advantage, a culture of empathy helps to foster smooth working relationships, and a greater sense of community. Effective leaders who possess higher emotional intelligence and excellent interpersonal skills often mention empathy as an essential attribute to their success. But not all workers feel that their workplace prioritizes empathy. 

In a recent study from Business Solver, 92% of surveyed CEOs say their organization has a culture of empathy, while only 72% of employees agree. In today’s challenging labor market, that could mean the difference between talent staying and going elsewhere. A lack of empathy in our work relationships results in distrust, less successful relationships, and a lack of cooperation and teamwork. These elements are all toxic to having productive meetings.

We know that empathy creates trust, helps to resolve disagreements and conflicts, and can boost confidence when people feel they’ve been heard. So, how can we begin to shift towards an empathetic mindset?

Let’s look at three practical, empathic behaviors you can start using right now to make meaningful changes in how you approach your meeting participation, increasing engagement as well as productivity.

Essential Empathic Meeting Behaviors

It’s understandably difficult to put yourself in someone else’s shoes when you find yourself in a meeting confronted by coworkers who are either seemingly at odds with you, have different priorities, or who object to every idea you propose. 

These, however, are the meeting moments when empathy matters the most. 

Empathic Behavior #1: Open your meetings with a focus on others

It’s rarely effective to start a collective problem-solving discussion by launching into the specifics of what you need, or what you want. For example, “I’ve been tasked with putting together the departmental goals for next year and will need everyone’s full cooperation to do so.”

People are more likely to listen and actually hear what you have to say if you focus first on the group’s "care-abouts" and challenges. For example, if you’re familiar with Mandel’s thinking and messaging tool, SCI-PAB®, then you already know that starting with the “SCI” (situation - complication - implication) is all about empathetically focusing on the listener. This results in a much more effective opening: “I know you’re all laser-focused on closing out this year successfully, so being asked to start working on next year’s goals must be a huge distraction. If we don’t start now, we could stumble going into next year and no one wants to start that by playing catch up.”

When you begin a meeting with an outward focus, you automatically get the attention of others present and encourage them to hear more.

According to influential psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman, there are three different kinds of empathy: cognitive, emotional and compassionate. They differ in the amount of emotional investment you give to another person. 

  1. Cognitive empathy is being aware of how someone else feels or what they might be thinking. 

  2. Emotional empathy is feeling someone’s emotions as if they were your own.

  3. Compassionate empathy is understanding the other person’s feelings and being moved to act to help them if possible.

You could argue that empathy types two and three are too touchy-feely for the workplace, but the first, cognitive empathy, is the all-too-often missing ingredient for successful meetings. It focuses on the group’s challenges and care-abouts, creating a more open mindset for further discussion.

Empathic Behavior #2: Understand that sometimes people vent (and don’t need solutions)

When someone makes negative statements, they have a way of negatively changing the tone of a meeting. Sometimes it could just be complaining like, “I’ve gotten 20 emails since the meeting started,” or, “I’ve got three more meetings after this one – I don’t know when I’ll get my actual work done.” And sometimes it’s something more personal like, “It’s hard to focus with my dog in the veterinary hospital.” 

It’s too easy to just blow by these comments, or worse, try to one-up them by comparing your own hardships. Neither helps engage the person with the meeting. Better to pause and assess if the person just needs a quick moment of compassion. Try saying, “You’re right, the amount of emails has been overwhelming lately,” or, “It’s so stressful when a beloved pet is sick.” Negative statements or reactions rarely need a response, just a brief moment of empathetic acknowledgement, which can have an immediate positive impact on everyone in the meeting.

People have a natural ability for both giving and receiving empathy. According to a recent Harvard Medical School study, empathy is a hardwired capacity in humans. Research in the neurobiology of empathy has changed the perception of empathy from a soft skill to a neurobiologically based competency.

To test just how innately competent you are in reading other people’s emotions, try taking the “Reading the eyes in the mind” test, a visual tool developed by clinical psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen. See how well you do identifying the emotional or mental state of a person based only on an image of their eyes.

Empathic Behavior #3: Acknowledge the “why” behind a tough question or objection

It’s common to have colleagues in a meeting with opposing points of view. This is often expressed in the form of challenging questions or objections, making a meeting feel like a battleground where you’re under attack. You can escalate the battle by immediately responding with your point of view, which further raises the tension in the room. Or you can relieve much of the tension by front-loading your response with empathy. 

Remember the veteran colleague who objects to any new idea? They might say something like “we tried that about 10 years ago, but it never went anywhere.” Resist the urge to strike back with a statement about how times have changed. Instead, you first make the person feel heard with a small dose of empathy, saying something like, “your company experience is invaluable to our efforts in this area. Would you be open to hearing why I think it might work this time?” 

People need to feel valued and heard, and they need to know that you understand where they’re coming from. Showing empathy to someone doesn’t mean you’re ceding your point of view, it means you’re stopping to acknowledge and listen to what may be blocking someone from hearing anything new.

And one more thing…

Virtual meetings make it hard to read the room, even with webcams on, because you’re not able to get a sense of someone’s body language or micro-expressions on the faces in the group. That makes it wise to periodically check in with participants to see how they are feeling about the meeting. For example, “Sofia, you’ve had a lot of experience with the issue we’re trying to solve. What concerns might you have about the approach we’re taking?”

Creating a culture of empathy within an organization doesn’t happen overnight. People will continue to be busy, often rushed and prone to multitasking, but they will always be human. It only takes one person to start making positive changes in every meeting by remembering that empathy is the key to collaboration and teamwork. 

As Seth Godin reminds us, the most reliably successful people are “desperate to see and know what’s making other people tick. They actively engage, and they do it with empathy and generosity.” Try a shift in mindset as you begin this new year in 2020. Be the voice of empathy within your workplace. Remember, just like kindness, a little empathy goes a long way.

What's Next? 
If making your meetings more productive is at the top of your list of priorities, you might also enjoy an article we wrote entitled "How to Make Your Next Team Offsite Wildly Productive." It offers tips and tricks that can make the most out of your team's valuable time. 

Sources (in order of appearance)

Business Solver. (2019). 2019 State of workplace empathy study. Retrieved from https://www.businessolver.com/resources/businessolver-empathy-monitor

Goleman, Daniel. (June 2007). Three kinds of empathy. Retrieved from http://www.danielgoleman.info/three-kinds-of-empathy-cognitive-emotional-compassionate/

Riess, Helen. (June 2017). The science of empathy. J Patient Exp. 4(2): 74–77. Published online 2017 May 9. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5513638/

The New York Times Well Blog (October 2013). Can you read people’s emotions? The New York Times. Retrieved from https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/03/well-quiz-the-mind-behind-the-eyes/

Godin, Seth. (December 2019). Successful Creatives. Seths.blog. Retrieved from https://seths.blog/2019/12/successful-creatives/

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