"Sorry, I was on mute.” Zooming Out on Communication During COVID

April 25, 2020

It’s 8:00 am and the house is eerily quiet, except for the familiar elevator music coming from my phone as I wait for my conference call to begin. Like most of you, I am slowly, reluctantly acclimating to this new normal, constructed of hodge-podge remote work, daytime and nighttime yoga pants (yes, there’s a difference), heightened emotions and blurred boundaries. Figuring out how to function personally, let alone professionally, feels strange on a good day.

 

In times like these, cultivating compassion and empathy for ourselves and others can be extremely challenging, albeit extremely impactful. Skills like compassion and empathy are critical for workplace operations, particularly as we collectively navigate life with COVID-19. Research conducted by Worline and Jane Dutton, who co-wrote Awakening Compassion at Work, shows that compassion correlates with our own level of job satisfaction and the degree to which we find our work meaningful. Compassion also helps us remember that the curt email or slack message we just received from our colleague likely isn’t personal.

 

As Brené Brown says, clear is kind - especially right now, when we’re unable to read people’s facial expressions and body language. To make up for the lack of context, it can be helpful to verbally communicate more than we might under normal circumstances. Being more conscientious about what we say and how we say it can prevent miscommunication and diffuse tense conversations. For example, saying, “There’s a lot of back and forth right now, let me take some time to review everything before getting back to you.” is much clearer than radio silence and much less frustrating than hearing, “I have no idea.

 

Communicating compassionately and empathetically is also critical for the way brands communicate with customers. With the backdrop of COVID-19, the term customer experience is taking on a whole new meaning. Brand storytelling is being replaced with safety messaging, retail communications are emphasizing like prevention and relief, and entire industries are being turned upside down as production pivots from vehicles to ventilators and haute couture to hand sanitizers. According to McKinsey companies that are able to navigate these changes and lead with empathy during these times can strengthen relationships with customers. By cultivating genuine conversation and upholding conscious commerce during this crisis, companies can build a foundation of goodwill and long-lasting emotional connections with the customers they serve.

 

As we learn how to work together from our separate makeshift workspaces, it’s important to remember our mechanisms for coping are separate as well. In a recent podcast episode, Brené Brown unpacks our polarized mechanisms of functioning during such an intensely stressful period. She talks about our tendencies to go back to familiar, hardened patterns of coping and how we can struggle to zoom out.

 

The stress of these unprecedented times has many of us ricocheting between over-functioning and under-functioning. Some of us, a whirlwind, we work (even) longer hours, clean and organize the house, pull double workout sessions, systematically finish each book that’s been sitting idle on the nightstand, alphabetize our filing cabinets…you get the drift. Others find themselves in a sea of disarray, unable to mobilize into action, feeling paralyzed, foggy, unproductive, and simply lost.

 

At the end of the day, it all starts with us. The best thing we can do, in addition to staying safe and well, is to be generous in our interpretations of ourselves and other people. If we can find ways to communicate empathetically and compassionately with ourselves, we can translate it to our family, friends, colleagues and customers, and build a new normal together.

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