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  • Ronica & Christine

The Power of Empathy in Meeting Design

When we prepare to facilitate critical leadership meetings like strategy offsites or portfolio steering, we ask you to commit to individual time with us: we ask a handful of participating leaders to do empathy interviews (also called design or stakeholder interviews).

These individual, confidential conversations are essential to helping us create a more effective and valuable session. They also help us connect and build trust with the group so that we can better facilitate difficult conversations and decisions.

Gain Clarity on All the Needed Outcomes

There is always a primary business functional outcome needed from the meeting. For example, we need to get aligned on our portfolio roadmap.

To achieve the functional outcome, we often find social outcomes are equally important. To create powerful alignment on the decisions that shape our outcomes, we often need to improve group cohesion and might even need to specifically address social friction amongst and across leadership teams. So a social outcome might be to address the root cause of friction in the group.

Sometimes empathy interviews reveal new information about how we can achieve the meeting outcomes. For example, we might learn we need to add participants in order to make decisions that stick, or that we need a group of people to make a set of decisions before we bring everyone together.

Increase Participant Ownership of the Meeting

When you’re included in the meeting design, when you help clarify what we most need to accomplish in this time together, you become fully invested. You’re more likely to better prepare for the meeting, to be more engaged in the session, and to help co-create better outcomes.

Welcome the Elephants

As part of co-designing the session with us, we will ask you if there are any elephants we should know about. “The elephant in the room” is a common North American phrase that refers to the taboo topics that no one brings up. People go to great lengths to avoid these topics–they’ll pretend they don’t exist, dance around them, change the subject, collectively go quiet. Addressing these difficult topics is often critical to unlocking higher performance and great culture.

Of course we can welcome the elephants as they come into difficult conversations unexpectedly. And, we can better welcome the elephants into our session if we know about them in advance. We can make a plan for how to introduce the taboo topic safely, and to facilitate a respectful and meaningful conversation. We have found that people are often more comfortable telling us about the known elephants in confidential, individual conversations.

Identify Training and Modeling Opportunities

Frequently, an elephant shared during empathy interviews is that people just don’t have the skills expected. Empathy interviews can help us identify areas where some of the participants might need additional review, explanations, or even training before making the critical decisions needed. We can add these to the pre-work or even the meeting itself.

Sometimes an elephant that emerges is that senior leaders are exhibiting behaviors that are keeping themselves and the team from achieving more together. As facilitators, we can then identify key behaviors that senior leaders might want to explicitly practice and model in the meeting.

Change Your Work Culture

Often the elephants in the room include behaviors and practices that are common in your work culture. Elephants you might bring in are assumptions or relationships that keep information from flowing, practices that go unnoticed and uncelebrated, and poor behaviors that are tolerated.

In empathy interviews, we’ll ask you what you want to be different. In synthesizing the results of all the interviews, we will look for ways we can support new behaviors and practices in how we design and facilitate the session, in the language we use, and in how we we ask everyone to participate.

We’ve repeatedly witnessed a group of engaged leaders rapidly change their culture as they all practiced and modeled new behaviors together.

What to Expect in an Empathy Interview

We will ask you to take about 30 minutes to individually connect with us. We ask each person the same set of questions. We will ask you some questions about your own context, what your organization needs most right now, and what might be keeping you from achieving more together. We’ll explicitly ask what you want out of the meeting both personally and for the group–and what the elephants might be. We’ll ask you to share explicit activities you wish were included or excluded from the meeting, and we’ll ask about your personal participation style.

We keep all interviews confidential at an individual response level. It helps us genuinely connect more quickly, and we’re more likely to learn about elephants that way. We take copious notes and/or use a transcription app so that we clearly capture language and desired outcomes. We do not share those notes outside of the facilitation team.

Although we never provide individual identifying information, we do synthesize the results and share common themes. We use all of the wonderful and difficult information shared in empathy interviews to design a better meeting.

Better Meetings = Better Results and Happier Humans

As you come together to steer your business in critical meetings, you of course want to invest in making those meetings as effective as possible. Participating in empathy interviews gives you a chance to help us design a better time together, improving participant relationships as you improve results.

Those better meetings also create happier humans: leaders are often deeply relieved when difficult issues finally get addressed. It feels good when the group makes better, more informed decisions together--and when you can leave a meeting feeling more like part of a great team.


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