In almost every email exchange, text message or video call I’ve had with people over the past three weeks or so, someone will say, ‘What strange times these are…’. And everyone else involved in the conversation nods their head in agreement. These are strange times indeed, an experience most of us have never encountered in our lifetimes.
Crisis mode: ON
While we’ve had to deal with AIDS, SARS and MERS over the past several decades, the extensive impact of COVID-19 pulls our imagination to the Spanish Flu of 1918-1920, one of the deadliest recent pandemics that killed 100 million people worldwide.
The restrictions on the movement of citizens across international borders as well as within their own countries and the rationing of food and household supplies would be more familiar in a time of war.
And while we have the financial crisis of ’08-’09 to compare against, this current crisis feels bigger. Both the supply and demand of goods and services have been disrupted, hundreds of millions of people are unemployed and the repercussions will be felt by countries around the world for years.
It’s only natural that we’re operating in crisis mode.
But as I watch the daily briefings, read countless articles from the media and scroll through endless opinions and counter-opinions on Twitter, I’m left with several questions, the main one being, are we in the midst of crisis communications or a communications crisis?
What’s the point of communicating?
In normal circumstances, communication is about sharing experiences – how we interpret events, how we feel, what we’re thinking and to express a need or a want. The point or overarching goal is to build relationships, work together to solve a problem or meet a need.
As we evolved from hunter-gather tribes into agrarian societies and into vibrant urban centres, communication has been a vital way to find like-minded communities, express ourselves creatively and enhance our quality of life.
I would argue that normal communication is about the long game.
Crisis communication, on the other hand, carries with it urgency. It’s about solving an immediate problem, mobilising people to immediate action. While it may use all the same components of normal communication – a sender and a receiver, a channel, an encoded message, non-verbal signals – these are all dialled up to eleven during a crisis. And each component takes on a layer of significance that may not be present normally.
Why is communication so difficult to do well?
We all communicate daily, but whether we are doing it effectively or not is up for debate. While this is being played out on a national and international level, it can often feel just as hard to communicate well with those who are closest to us.
The Book of Life, an initiative from philosopher Alain de Botton’s School of Life, has a very good article on the difficulty of communication with those around us. Here’s what I took away from it...
- Good communication is about vulnerability. It’s about letting someone see us in all our messiness and then seeing them in all of theirs. It’s active, takes effort and can be uncomfortable.
- We’re bad at communicating because we’re often afraid or ashamed of what goes on inside us. We rarely have adequate role models for what good communication looks like. And it’s much easier to start the next episode in your box set, to make a glancing comment or a joke and move on.
- To swallow the emotion and niggling fear rather than sit across from someone and share what’s in your heart.
- Good communication requires that we first accept our own thoughts, feelings and reactions before we present them to other people. And then we must extend this same courtesy to them.
While this health crisis is (hopefully) temporary, the truth is that we all face crises throughout our lives – whether they're physical, mental, emotional, relational – and communicating effectively can help us survive and thrive during them.
Uncertainty can lead to fear and confusion. And that toxic mixture can create a perpetuating loop of thought-emotion-action that can lead us into a downward spiral. Fear can be like a virus, spreading effortlessly through communities both physical and digital, multiplying exponentially.
And when we are afraid or anxious, our mental and physical processes start to shut down.
We’ve all experienced the difficulty of following a thought through to its natural conclusion when anxious or the feeling of being unable to move or to stop shaking due to fear. We can also become paranoid, not sure where to turn for help or who to trust. It’s easy to make mistakes when we are thus compromised.
So how do we communicate effectively during chaotic and uncertain times? Whether you’re communicating to close family, friends, colleagues or your country there are 5 best practices you can follow to make communication as clear as possible.
1. Know that it’s okay to be afraid, angry or frustrated
We need to acknowledge that feeling fear in the face of uncertainty is normal. Anxiety and even depression are natural responses to negative life events beyond our control, as Johann Hari shares in this brilliant interview in Vox.
Humans often try to push down negative emotions, to hold them at bay. We worry that they’ll overwhelm us, make us do something we will regret or drown us. But by interacting with those emotions in that way, we can make the situation worse.
What we should do instead is to acknowledge the emotion, label it – ’oh, that’s fear, that’s loneliness, that’s anger’ – and then let it go. Treat it like a cloud passing overhead, knowing that the blue sky behind it remains constant and will appear again soon.
2. Don’t hide from bad news
Hiding from bad news is never a good strategy, but it is a natural human reflex. We are often like the ostrich, hiding our heads in the sand when we don’t want to face what’s coming.
But it is only by exposing the bad news to the light of day – getting all the information and data about the scope and scale of a problem – that we can start to identify solutions and put a plan together to move beyond it.
Amy Edmondson, a professor and author, talks about the importance of psychological safety between people. She defines this as 'a climate in which people can raise questions, concerns, and ideas without fear of personal repercussion’.
Being willing to face bad news will ensure your communication is grounded in reality
3. Practice active listening and empathy
It’s incredibly easy to be hyper-focused during a crisis, offering short, sharp statements to get things done. But often what people need during uncertain times is someone to truly listen to them. This is the time for empathy.
People need to be able to ask questions about things they don’t know or don’t understand. They need to be able to express a wide range of emotions and have you recognise and validate them, even if you don’t necessarily share or agree with them.
It’s also easy in a crisis to lead in a top-down manner – the person in charge pursuing an agenda with single-minded determination and those below following directions. But everyone impacted by decisions should have a say in the ultimate goal or destination.
Crises often require sacrifice and life doesn’t always look the same on the other side of it. By listening to what people want and need, you can work for an outcome that will have something for everyone.
4. Be clear and transparent to earn trust
We know that fear and uncertainty can make it hard to concentrate and understand complexity. So it’s more important than ever to be clear in your thoughts and words. Use short sentences and simple words.
Stick to the facts and evidence you have, and if you don’t know the answer to a question, say so. It’s better to follow up when you have more information rather than have to take back something you said that turns out to be untrue.
It’s also important to be transparent about the decisions you’re making – why they’re important and what you believe the benefit will be. Transparency can help build trust, which is an essential part of good communication.
5. Focus on communication that builds people up
Imagine communication as a tool that could make a situation better rather than preserving the status quo…what would that look like?
I think that kind of communication would work toward fostering trust between groups and finding common ground to connect people. It would recognise our shared human experience and make room for hope.
It would ask questions in a new way to spark creative thinking and a fresh perspective. It would be inclusive, making sure everyone had the chance to participate. And it would focus on adding value in the moment, not taking more than you’re giving or holding something back.
Good communication can be difficult at the best of times, but communicating in a crisis has additional challenges.
But if we are more intentional and deliberate in how we approach a conversation or meeting, we will have a much better chance of engaging in meaningful communication that can solve problems and create a stronger sense of community moving forward.