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.