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Empathy Is Key to a Great Meeting

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Not just empathy but emotional self management.

So how do we fix meetings so they are more enjoyable and produce more positive feelings? Sure, invite the right peoplecreate better agendas, and be better prepared. Those are baseline fixes. But if you really want to improve how people work together at meetings, you’ll need to rely on—and maybe develop—a couple of key emotional intelligence competencies: empathy and emotional self-management.

Why empathy? Empathy is a competency that allows you to read people. Who is supporting whom? Who is pissed off and who is coasting? Where is the resistance? This isn’t as easy as it seems. Sometimes, the smartest resisters often look like supporters, but they’re not supportive at all. They’re smart, sneaky idea-killers.

Carefully reading people will also help you understand the major, and often hidden conflicts in the group. Hint: These conflicts probably have nothing to do with the topics or decisions being made at the meeting. It is far more likely to be linked to very human dynamics like who is allowed to influence whom: headquarters vs. the field; expats vs. local nationals; and power dynamics between men and women, and among people of various races.

Empathy lets you “see” and manage these power dynamics. Many of us would like to think that these dynamics — and office politics, in general — are beneath us, unimportant, or just for those Machiavellian folks we all dislike. Realistically, though, power is hugely important in groups because it is the real currency in most organizations. And it plays out in meetings. Learning to read how the flow of power is moving and shifting can help you lead the meeting — and everything else.

Keep in mind that employing empathy will help you understand how people are responding to you. As a leader you are, possibly, the most powerful person at the meeting. Some people, the dependent types, will defer at every turn. That feels good, for a minute. Carry on that way and you’re likely to create a dependent group — or one that is polarized between those who will do anything you want and those who will not.

This is where emotional self-management comes in, for a couple of reasons. First, take the dependent folks in your meetings. Again, it can feel really good to have people admire you and agree with your every word. In fact, this can be a huge relief in our conflict-ridden organizations. But if you don’t manage your response, you will make group dynamics worse, as I mentioned above. You will also look like a fool. Others are reading the group, too, and they will rightly read that you like it when people go along with you. They will see that you are falling prey to your own ego or those who want to please or manipulate you.

Second, strong emotions set the tone for the entire group. We take our cue from one another about how to feel about what’s going on around us. Are we in danger? Is there cause for celebration? Should we be fed up and cynical or hopeful and committed? Here’s why this matters in meetings: If you, as a leader, manage your more positive emotions, such as hope and enthusiasm, others will “mirror” these feelings and the general tone of the group will be marked by optimism and a sense of “we’re in this together, and we can do it.” And, there is a strong neurological link between feelings and cognition. We think more clearly and more creatively when our feelings are largely positive, and when we are appropriately challenged.