Before Communicating, Put Yourself in Their Shoes

people in a circle with different shoes
By Susan Lucia Annuzio

2 minutes

Empathy goes a long way in helping leaders connect with employees.

This blog is adapted with permission from the original.

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders took quite a refresher course in how best to communicate with employees. I’ve spoken to executives from a variety of industries on five continents, and much of what they said about communicating during that time is remarkably similar. Whether in banking, consumer products or consulting, they were worried about communicating effectively as well as about their employees’ safety and emotional state.

The advice I gave them then is no different from what I recommend to leaders facing any crisis: Before you communicate, put yourself in the shoes of the people you’re talking to. During the height of the pandemic, people all over the world were feeling challenged—their world had been shaken. They might express their feelings in culturally different ways, but the actual feelings are the same. They have the human need for empathy—to know the feelings they are experiencing are acknowledged.

Here is some solid advice about how to do this.

1. Don’t pretend that you know how your employees are feeling.

An executive doesn’t know what hourly workers feel like or what personal challenges their employees might be confronting. Do they have elderly parents to take care of? Do they have a child with special needs? Are they in debt?

2. Do ask, “How are you feeling?”

Give them time to vent, and acknowledge their fears and concerns.

3. Don’t try to talk them out of their feelings.

If you say something like, “you shouldn’t feel that way because …,” their feelings will only increase in intensity.

4. Make sure people feel valued.

One way to do this is to thank them for their efforts. An executive at a family-owned health products company told me that her volume of business increased during the pandemic, and people were working long hours. Employees also were willingly putting themselves in harm’s way. We decided she would mail handwritten notes to her employees and their families to thank them for living the company’s values through their specific behaviors, including following the protocols of sanitizing, wearing masks and social distancing.

5. Be kind.

In turbulent times, people are especially concerned about their jobs. Have the courage to tell them the truth about what is going on with your organization regularly. When you try to protect people by not giving them information, they will make up information that is sometimes worse than the truth. Keeping people guessing is also very unkind.

We all need courageous leaders in times like these—leaders willing to be direct, tackle tough conversations and questions, and show the empathy that’s so greatly needed and appreciated by employees.

President/CEO of The Center for High Performance, Susan Lucia Annunzio acts as a strategic advisor to CEOs of leading global companies on strategy attainment and business transformation.

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