Originally published with the Forbes Coaches Council, September 2018.
As a coach, I see a lot of different kinds of speakers: those who are confident and controlled and others who are nervous and still figuring out how to get their point across. And I’ve had people ask, “Don’t you sometimes want to laugh at how bad some of these presentations can be?”
It might be hard to believe, but the honest answer is that I never want to laugh. Part of what makes me love my job is that I really connect with how hard public speaking can be. It’s nerve-wracking to get up and expose your potential weaknesses. I don’t ever feel amused by someone’s fear or inexperience — I empathize with what they are going through.
Now, obviously, empathy is a valuable asset in coaching. I’m there to help, after all. But empathy is important in whatever role you are playing in the room, whether you are the leader or the listener.
We live in a hyper-charged era, in which people listen less and stake out their beliefs more adamantly than ever before. But if we can approach a room with a willingness to share, receive and connect, we can find common ground and achieve our objectives more easily.
And don’t forget: Have empathy for yourself too. It’s a lot easier to improve if you don’t beat yourself up every time you make a mistake or don’t perform as well as you’d like. Being kind to yourself becomes easier, too, when you treat others with sympathy and respect — because it becomes easier to believe that your audience isn’t judging you harshly if you don’t judge others.
How do we cultivate empathy? It isn’t hard, but we often forget to deploy these skills. Try to remind yourself to focus on these strategies when you approach communication:
• Respect both strengths and weaknesses. In other words, give others (and yourself) the benefit of the doubt. Not everyone feels comfortable in front of an audience. Try to forgive a misused word or a forgotten data point. If you lose track of your thought in the middle of a sentence, take a pause and start again. When you have an opportunity to give feedback, present it constructively.
• Use your active listening skills. It’s pretty hard to connect with anyone if you don’t listen. Take notes, put away distractions and ask questions. Really try to understand what you are hearing, and don’t forget eye contact. When you feel nervous, it is much easier to look up or down than toward another human being, but this visual connection creates an invaluable bond.
• Spend some time anticipating what your audience wants. Put yourself in your audience’s shoes. Think about what they might want or need to hear from you. If you’ve laid the groundwork for understanding their point of view, you’ll be ready to really connect with them once you are in the same room.
• Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Tell a story that connects to a more personal side of your life (remembering to stay on message!). Admit to failure. It may feel like you are opening up yourself to criticism or mockery, but it’s more likely that people will admire your courage.
We all crave connection. True connection requires respect and empathy — a recognition that we are all human, we all have our highs and lows and we are all doing our best. If we can walk into a room with that attitude, our chances of walking out with an objective met, a successful outcome or a partnership forged are that much stronger.