26-03-2020

TOUGH TIMES: A FEELING FOR COMMUNICATION

In times of true crisis, it causes us to reflect on the need to balance fact and feeling when we communicate with each other.

Author: Shireen Shurmer

I’m often guided by Maya Angelou’s famous words: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” And it strikes me that in times of crisis such as we are experiencing on a worldwide scale right now, this is truer than ever.

An extreme and entirely fluid situation throws up unique challenges for businesses and individuals. What makes sense one day quickly becomes inappropriate or even irrelevant as new facts emerge and contexts change. There are no clear rights and wrongs.

How can organisations and individuals know what to do and how to behave in a situation for which there is no precedent? How do leaders offer clarity and certainty when there is none? How is it possible to communicate consistently when the goalposts are constantly moving? Everyone is processing a torrent of new information at speed.

But as hard as it may be for organisations to make decisions in a crisis and to provide concrete information, this is precisely what people want. Most humans crave clarity, structure and leadership, never more so than at times like these. Crisis, and the wave of emotions that come with it, affects our ability to make decisions. We need others to make them for us. Wherever possible, we need doubt to be removed.

And audiences in crisis need to believe. They need the narrative and the person delivering it to be credible. Our receptiveness to factual information is overlaid with anxiety, anger and confusion. These adjust our antennae and make us more sensitive than ever, to both the message and the tone with which it’s delivered.

While we all absorb the successive shocks, we also see the full spectrum of human and organisational behaviour. Most of us can already identify the people and brands that have earned our respect so far in these challenging weeks, and those whose response reveals an ethical compass at odds with our own.

And we can see these same behavioural extremes reflected in how people and businesses communicate with one another. Some take to whatever channels they have at their disposal to vent their anger and frustration, often without stopping to understand the contextual complexities or to consider the impact of their comments on others.

The same platforms are used by others for good. To provide reassurance, share well-informed guidance, offer support or simply give cheer. Some are focused exclusively on the impact on themselves. Others are motivated to consider and respond to the needs and priorities of a much wider commercial or personal community.

We can all say with certainty that the current situation is unfamiliar, uncomfortable, unpalatable and – at the level of the individual at least – uncontrollable.  Tragically, we cannot prevent the events that are overwhelming us.

What we have left is empathy, humanity and respect for the fact that each of us is dealing with this for the first time. If we bear this in mind with everything we say and do in the coming weeks, we might at least make each other feel better.