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June 1, 2020

Leaders: Don’t Ignore It – Check in with Your People Today About the Ongoing Civil Unrest


There’s no doubt we’re facing some of the biggest challenges of our time, as a nation, as people and as leaders.

As we all try to make sense of the unrest sweeping the nation, many employees started work this morning with yet another emotionally-charged, hugely complex topic on their minds, on top of the challenges many already face with the pandemic.

As I reflected on this post, talking about this crisis is one of the most difficult conversations for people in this country to have right now. As a white male, I feel ill-equipped in many ways; that said, I want to try and be part of the solution. As I considered this from the perspective of leaders and how they can help their people navigate these tumultuous times, I wanted to offer a few thoughts that I hope will help. 

To not have a conversation or acknowledge what’s going on in our country today sends a message in itself. Employees will interpret your silence as meaning that you don’t care, don’t find the topic important, or don’t know how to talk about it. While this racial crisis might be difficult to discuss, the goal isn’t to have a perfect conversation or to solve the issue. Rather, you want to be there for your team as they try and make sense of what’s going on. You want them to feel that their voice is important and, hopefully, that we’re all in this together.

A human connection is needed right now, and that involves purely listening

A core question the most effective leaders ask – themselves and others – is this: how can I help? Today, we can listen and help our employees express and process their emotions, if they choose to – whatever they are – as a means of caring and showing your support for them.

Today and this week is an opportunity to check in with every person on your team. One-on-one. This conversation is best had individually.

The conversation-starter might sound something like this:

Given what’s happening in our nation and communities, I’m checking in with everyone on the team, as I’ve done during the pandemic. If it’s helpful to you, I’m open to listening – that’s it, just listen – to how you’re feeling to help you process all that’s going on. If you’d prefer not to talk about it, that’s okay, too. Know I’m always here to listen to you.

You know best who to start with, as you prioritize these conversations. Think about who might be most impacted, or who might have the strongest feelings where you can help.

The goal is to listen and help your employees feel heard. Chances are, you will hear various interpretations of facts and emotions – some of which you might agree with; others, you might strongly disagree with.

Now is not the time to express your point-of-view.

This is not about you; rather, this is about helping your employees feel heard.

Empathize and help your employees put things into perspective on their own

The strongest tool you have in your toolkit is empathy – putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and reflecting genuinely what they are feeling. It’s not about agreement; in fact, you don’t have to agree with them. That’s not the point. You just need to play back what you’re hearing so they feel heard.

Here are some thoughtstarter suggestions to have a helpful and productive conversation. You decide how to make these proven strategies “real” for you, so you are true to yourself:

  • First, listen for and reflect the emotional content. Accept and validate the feelings you hear: “Sounds like this is very frustrating for you…” When you help others understand their own feelings – even the difficult ones – you help them reduce the likelihood that those feelings will control them.
  • Then, paraphrase what you’re hearing to demonstrate you’re listening: “What I hear you saying is…” “Let me make sure I got this…”  Again, you don’t have to agree with them; you just need to play back what you’re hearing so they feel heard.
  • Help them realize they’re not alone if they’re struggling right now. Talk about how we’re all sorting through this at the same time, on top of the COVID-19 challenges: “This situation is really difficult, hard and complex for all of us. We’re all struggling with how we feel about it.”
  • Close the conversation when you sense the employee is feeling heard: “I hope this will be an ongoing conversation.” Share your appreciation for how they’ve opened up to you, and for the trust they’ve placed in you. Let them know this conversation is private and you’re always available to continue the dialogue, if that’s helpful to them.

This is a time where people need people, and need “real” conversations.

Remember, employees don’t expect you to be perfect in how you handle this, or to have the answers; just listen, be human, and real. Don’t avoid the topic because it is hard and uncomfortable. Lead with heart and try to open up dialogue that’s respectful, compassionate and helpful. 

How will you respond to this defining moment?

David Grossman

Click below to download your free eBook—8 Ways to Lead with Heart in Times of Uncertainty and Change—and get 8 key strategies to help you lead and communicate with heart during these trying times.

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