Designing for Empathy and Other Meeting Insights from Paul Axtell

So we’re hustling with the Amazemeet app and giving the Meeting Facilitator Canvas around, but we were wondering what people – especially experts – thought of the idea. Maybe there’s something we’re missing or maybe their insights can direct us better. In any case, I started asking around and…

We got the pleasure of chatting to Paul Axtell whose book we greatly enjoyed because his values align with our own. For example, Paul talks about empathy and design, which are the most important elements in a meeting if you ask us. A meeting cannot be productive without strong leadership as well and it seems that Paul really knows what he’s talking about, so take notes and let us know what you thought at the end. But before we start, here’s what Paul does:

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Paul Axtell is the author of Meetings Matter: 8 Powerful Strategies for Remarkable Conversations and Being Remarkable, a powerhouse of advice for extraordinary performance at work and in life. He provides consulting, coaching, and conversational skills training to a wide variety of clients, from Fortune 500 companies and universities to nonprofit organizations and government agencies. 

All right, let’s start with the interrogation! I mean, questions. What is the biggest pain point for you personally in meetings, Paul?

If you ask people about their complaints regarding meetings, these are the top three responses. People who do not listen to others (1) distracting behavior (2) lack of progress on agreed upon actions between meetings (3). The most missing points in the meetings I see are these: 1. Lack of visibility during complex conversations. 2. Leaving a topic without deliberately and thoroughly wrapping it up.

My personal complaint might be that people ask to discuss things that they have little intention to change.

What pain points do you encounter most often in meetings? How do you deal with them?

I don’t experience many because I ask for what I want up front in terms of how the meeting will go. People are always relieved that someone has thought about the best way to handle each conversation.

The old adage about getting what you expect holds true in meetings — expect more and you’ll get more.

In your book, Meetings Matter, you focus on relationships and conversations. Can you tell us more about how you decided to focus on these two elements and how they make or break a meeting?

After your core competency or discipline, the next skill set you need is conversational skills and relationship creation. If both are in place, then meetings are easy. If one or both are missing, then it’s is much more difficult to converse in groups. Therefore, all ideas about how to improve meetings will wither. Need conversation and relationship first in place first. This becomes more important as group size goes above eight.

You talk about “designing a conversation”, Paul, and we’re constantly reminding people that they have to “design their meetings”. Do you reckon a good meeting design could open up more space for empathy?

Interesting question…never put meeting design as a source of empathy together before. Seems to make sense. For instance, I’m an advocate of starting all meetings with this question:

“Does anyone need to say or ask anything before we start?”

This gives people permission to express something that they would like people to be aware of or address so they can concentrate on the meeting. This would be a generous way to begin.

It’s mostly the responsibility of a manager to design meetings, but what do you think of more collaborative ones? How much say should attendees have over what happens in a meeting?

Participants have a lot of say about process but it will go better if they are reacting to a well thought out design rather than taking the groups time to start with a blank canvas.

Speaking of canvas, could you look at the Meeting Facilitator Canvas and let me know if anything’s missing or could be improved? 

First blush, I really like what you’ve got. You have the most important segments identified.

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I did a webinar for Soundview last Tuesday and one of the questions was about ways to track a meeting. I’m not much of a fan of Powerpoint because it shuts down conversation and sets up distraction, but this is clearly something different.

What kind of digital solutions should managers already be using?

Powerpoints, iPads, video conferencing, audio conferencing.

Do you think “meeting apps” help or disrupt meetings? What do you think about The Meeting Facilitator Canvas?

I’m relatively naive with respect to apps. I do love mind mapping and taking notes in this way either on paper or on an iPad if people can do it quickly.

I’m in favor of trying anything and everything to make meetings work. 

The decision point is always, does the technology add value to the conversation or take away from the attention to the conversations that make up the meetings. The Meeting Facilitator Canvas can serve as a gentle reminder to not skip any key elements of preparing for and leading meetings.

How open are people to new solutions and habits in their “meeting behavior” in your experience?

People want to be better and they are very open to suggestions by anyone with whom they admire, trust, and can provide feedback in a non-threatening way.

Any parting advice for the people and companies who want more productive meetings?

Have fewer items on the agenda, invite fewer people, have a clear track going in and stay on track. Have someone set up to issue meeting notes within eight hours. Have someone set up to track all commitments made during a meeting so they are completed as scheduled. Talk about the right things — things that move your company forward.

Yikes, seems like the Amazemeet app can take care of all that. Once we’re done with it. If you, dear reader, want to get into our private beta, all you have to do is sign up on the main site

And thank you for sharing your insights with us, Paul. ☺

I’m the founder of Amazemeet and like most people who’ve worked in professional organisations for the last 20 years, I’ve spent a lot of that time in meetings. And they mostly sucked.

I’m on a mission to help people and organisations do meetings better.

3 Overlooked “Soft” Skills in Leaders — Steve Jobs Had None of Those

For a decade now I’ve been arguing with my father what intelligence means. He (a member of Mensa, believe it or not) argues that IQ surely determines how smart you are, and I (forever the fan of Forrest Gump) will argue that emotional intelligence is sometimes more important than IQ.

In the context of business, I’ve been proven right by surveys (“employers value emotional intelligence over IQ”) and research (employees/executives with higher EQ perform better than others), which makes total sense, especially for managers. When you have to meet and manage people on a daily basis, you need some sort of understanding of people.

The only time a leader doesn’t need to be emotionally intelligent is when he/she’s working with robots.

Then there’s the whole debate about “hard” versus “soft” skills, which is the same thing, really, and it’s completely pointless since an effective leader needs to have both. Let’s take Steve Jobs for example.

Jobs was— and forever will be — known as a great innovator. Some may even go as far as calling him a genius. However:

A genius does not a great leader make, necessarily.

Was he a good leader? A lot of people will say no, simply because:

  1. He didn’t have high emotional intelligence.
  2. He didn’t have some vital soft skills.

I mean, the guy yelled and threw tantrums at work. Around him, employees had to walk on egg-shells and every time someone took the initiative to speak, he would publicly humiliate them. No wonder most of the staff of Apple left prematurely! He was more of a dictator than a leader.

A good leader would be the opposite really, so I’ve taken the liberty to collect 3 somewhat overlooked — because they are “soft” — skills in order to get to the bottom of the question of great leadership:

  1. Empathy
  2. Communication
  3. Humility

There was a time when Psychology was a bogus science and management was straight-forward. However, as the times bring change and we find ourselves in a less straightforward world, I’ve taken to believe that some things “make sense” and other things “make progress”. Whether these soft skills make sense to you or not, they’ve certainly made progress in both scientific and business contexts. So let’s discuss them individually.

Let’s talk about Empathy.

Empathy is the cornerstone of emotional intelligence.

Empathy is the ability to walk in someone else’s shoes for a day. It helps us connect and communicate in ways that bind us to our fellow workers. Without it, we are all islands in the same ocean.

Simon Sinek, author of Leaders Eat Last and Start With Why, says:

The lesson I’m learning is that I’m useless by myself. My success hinges entirely on the people I work with — the people who enlist themselves to join me in my vision. And it’s my responsibility to see that they’re working at their best capacity.

See that? It’s the leader’s responsibility to make sure the employees are working at their best capacity, meaning they are at their most productive. I don’t know about you, but the only times I’ve been productive at work were when I wasn’t being driven crazy by a passive-aggressive boss from hell.

The manager-employee relationship is so vital to both sides’ performance that it should never be overlooked. You can’t expect for employees to be engaged without actually being engaged first by their manager, and you can’t expect the manager to make progress without knowing where the team’s at.

It’s a team effort — as cheesy as it sounds — but the leader sets the pace. The manager is the one who sets the tone of his/her relationship with team members, and if a member is slacking, then just talk to them.

But make sure you’ve set the right tone first. I agree with Angel Cabrera, President of George Mason University, when he says:

At its very heart, a business is the beauty of bringing together people and things to make the community better off — these are the businesses we admire. Empathy is the one tool that makes it all happen.

Let’s talk about Communication.

If you’re empathetic, chances are you’re a decent communicator. Notice I say decent, not great. Truth is, even an empathetic person can be bad at communicating… if they don’t listen carefully.

Communication goes both ways. Now, you may be excellent at putting your point across and even motivating your team to get the job done. But have you asked your team for feedback? Are they likely to come up and give it to you? Those are very important questions to think about.

Once you get your team talking, that’s when you get them engaged.

According to employee engagement expert David McLeod, engaged staff deliver 50% higher customer loyalty, 50% higher sales, and 27% higher profits — all figures any company owner would find attractive.

Furthermore a happy, engaged employee is more likely to stick with you when, for example, the competition offers them a job. Ka-bing!

Maybe there’s something to learn from Holacracy here that could benefit project managers.

Holacracy is a very modern idea of a business without management roles. More specifically, Holacracy distributes leadership into each role, so each employee can hold different roles at different stages of the project. Ultimately, the goal is transparency — a buzz word of late, especially in entrepreneurial circles.

While the idea itself could have some holes, when it comes to communication, it solves what the traditional corporate structure cannot — the problem of communication between the different levels. It could be quite empowering for employees to be regarded as important as the VP, for example, and encouraged — by a meeting facilitator — to voice their opinions and “tensions”. In that meeting, your main priority won’t be to speak according to your job title, but to advance the project.

I don’t know about you, but I’d be trying it out before discarding the idea. Times are moving fast and new challenges are presenting to employers that we never imagined possible. To paraphrase Darwin, adapt or die.

Let’s talk about Humility.

Probably the most overlooked quality in business, and in life.

Humility is a quality few people have. It’s in the emotional intelligence toolset, but unlike empathy, it targets the self, the ego. Most people — especially bosses — have enormous egos. They wouldn’t shut up about it. And they put people off with their arrogance and selfishness.

It takes enormous strength to put your own ego aside and admit that you make mistakes. Let someone else talk. Let others list your accomplishments and shrug compliments off. It’s not about you, after all.

For you, it’s about the common good.

A humble leader not only understands and listens. A humble leader brings out the best of other people.

It’s natural that when you put yourself aside, you’re able to really see others. To see what they’re good at, to tell them that, and to inspire them to take action. You’re naturally good at leading and people are happy to follow.

And hey, it’s not just mumbo-jumbo. A recent Catalyst study shows that humility is one of four critical qualities of a good leader. Not to mention that scholars from the University of Washington Foster School of Business discovered that humble people make the most effective leaders!

As the researchers put it:

Our study suggests that a ‘quieter’ leadership approach — listening, being transparent, aware of your limitations and appreciating co-workers strengths and contributions, is an effective way to engage employees.

Not only were the employees of such people more engaged, but they were also more committed to their leader’s vision. I mean, when your boss actively listens to your ideas and encourages you to share them, wouldn’t you be more committed and receptive to their ideas?

Of course you would.

So you can try this approach or… you know, idolize Steve Jobs and be a jerk at the office, but bear in mind that the bottom lines and the attitudes of your employees will be a perfect reflection of your leadership style.

In conclusion,

We, at amazemeet, certainly hope that you can see these “soft” skills as they truly are — a competitive advantage and an enlightened way to be.

I’m the founder of Amazemeet and like most people who’ve worked in professional organisations for the last 20 years, I’ve spent a lot of that time in meetings. And they mostly sucked.

I’m on a mission to help people and organisations do meetings better.