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Audience–Centered Focus as a Critical Factor for Presentation Success

BY MARK W. HARDWICK, PhD.

People's emotions are rarely put into words, far more often they are expressed through other non-verbal cues. The key to intuiting another's feelings is in the ability to read nonverbal channels: tone of voice, gestures, facial expressions, eyes, and the like. Sensing what others feel, without their saying so, captures the interpersonal sensitivity needed to demonstrate empathy. The essence of high level empathy is listening to the heart of others and correctly understanding their feelings and circumstances (Covey, 1996).   Meta-communication and non-verbal communication are documented by Merhiban and his associates as the most powerful element in making a positive impact on audiences.

Emotional Intelligence is the ability to use an understanding of emotions, in one’s self and others. This understanding enables one to deal effectively with people and problems in a way which reduces anxiety, nervousness, anger, and hostility. Dealing effectively with people and problems results in confidence, collaborative effort, enhances life-balance, and produces creative energy and enthusiasm.

Academic success is only a small factor in gauging our overall success in the workplace. Emotional Intelligence is far more significant.  The capacity for recognizing our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, and for managing emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships with others is all part of one’s Emotional Intelligence. The primary goal of all people is to seek emotional connectivity with one another leading to optimal physical, emotional, and spiritual well being. The capacity to manage our emotions and use them intelligently accounts for more than 80% of work success. Hope, optimism, empathy, and resilience are personal characteristics that separate star performers from those who get derailed. The good news is that unlike IQ, which remains stable for life, Emotional Intelligence can be increased at any time by motivation and purposeful activities.

Studies have shown that emotional attunement, or empathy, has little to do with rational intelligence and that students with high levels of empathy are among the most popular, well adjusted, and high performing students, yet their IQ's are no higher than those of students who are less skilled at reading nonverbal cues.

"The rules for work are changing. We are now being judged not just by how smart we are or by our training and expertise, but also by how well we handle ourselves and each other" states Daniel Goleman the author of "Working with Emotional Intelligence". The ability to pick up on emotional cues is particularly important in the business world where people often conceal their true feelings. The head of a private bank described his job as something like that of a priest or doctor. He said that he has to sense what his client hopes or fears even when the client can't express it in words. Likewise, the field of medicine has awakened to the benefits of empathy as we now know that doctors who don't listen get sued more than those who take the time to talk to their patients, joke and ask patient's opinions. And the time needed for a doctor to be successfully empathic? Just three minutes!

What is Empathy?

Empathy is the ability to understand someone from their point of view, by sensing and experiencing their feelings and perspective. Empathy is derived from the Greek word pathos meaning feeling. The ability to recognize and respond appropriately to the feelings of others is a rare skill. It is connected to optimism because it is through a sense of our connection to others that we see our own efficacy and value. Together they govern a significant portion of our behavior; they are the gatekeepers of our emotional selves. It is the converse of the word apathy, which implies lack of involvement.

Apathy is the creation of emotional distance and shows a lack of concern for others. In the workplace, apathy is often a symptom of stress and burnout. People can create distance when they don't have sufficient energy for emotional involvement. Apathetic managers are perceived as uncaring, unhelpful, distant, and untrustworthy.

Sympathy is another word about feelings for others. It describes feelings for rather than feelings with and is much less helpful in the workplace than empathy. Sympathy can be perceived as patronizing because when we feel sorry for someone, we often do not view that person as an equal. There is also the risk that if you become overly sympathetic you may lose objectivity and become too involved.

How Empathy Develops

Empathy develops in children at an early age. When a baby cries in response to the cry of another, that baby is displaying empathy. As early as the age of two years, a child will attempt to comfort another child who is distressed - by touching the child, offering a toy or asking an adult to help. Modeling empathic behavior is important for developing empathy. Babies learn how to respond to the feelings of others through their own experiences in early childhood. Those who are emotionally deprived fail to develop the neural pathways for empathy. When people develop empathy on a conscious level, it becomes self-reinforcing because it answers a deep-seated need to connect with others. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny". However, in many workplaces it has become every person for himself. Caring and empathy is taking a back seat to getting more and pushing harder, no matter what the cost.

Empathy at Work

Empathy has a number of applications in presentations.  It is very important in persuasion and influencing, because it allows us to understand the underlying needs of the audience and that provides us the opportunity to be more targeted in our message; this type of flexibility is more likely to lead to an appreciation of shared interests. Conflict often occurs because of misunderstandings and miscommunication. The more attuned we are to the feelings of others, the less conflict we will experience. Listening with empathy is a powerful way of understanding and appreciating differences. It helps us to recognize and appreciate different individual contributions and to harness the potential of their combined talents. Empathy is important for leaders because it enables them to respond to fears and anxieties, which can prevent audiences from accepting or embracing a message for change. Why do most audiences feel uninspired or frustrated? Because they believe that the speaker did not address their concerns and needs.

High levels of audience trust are created through empathy. By responding empathetically, we are able to meet our audience members’ needs or understand their motivations. The emotional connection is often more important than the words we use. Empathy is a key skill to developing influence, because networking relationships are based on trust and mutual understanding.