Communicating with care and empathy in a time of crisis
When anxiety is high and things feel bleak, it’s more important than ever to be considerate and empathetic in how and what we communicate.
Our world is changing fast. Things we once took for granted feel threatened. Our health, our livelihoods, our futures uncertain. While some of us adapt quickly to the new normal, others struggle.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to infiltrate every waking moment of our lives, it’s natural that we experience waves of emotions. It’s showing the cracks in the way the world has always operated; a world where profit comes before people, where the rich get richer, the sick get sicker, and the poor get poorer.
But as Leonard Cohen sang, the cracks are how the light gets in. It’s in times of darkness that kindness surges and swells around us. Holds us fast against the current. We look out for one another, and feel that we’re being looked out for in return.
We may find that we have more time on our hands over the coming weeks. As we settle into our new normal, find our footing on uneven ground, I’m hopeful that we’ll have the opportunity to reflect on the way we’ve always done things, and improve our default.
As we wait for messages of hope from governments, health advice from medics, news from loved ones, let’s be mindful of the way we communicate in business and in everyday life. Taking time to do so with care, kindness and empathy, we can build a sense of community and help people feel a little more supported, connected and safe.
Acknowledge before offering reassurance
Whether you’re communicating with a customer or a friend, think about what they might be going through. At a time of crisis and uncertainty, they may be anxious, overwhelmed, and worried about multiple things: how will they pay next month’s bills? Who will care for their relatives if they get sick? Is their cough just a cold, or could it be something else? How will the virus affect their existing health conditions?
A key message since the start of the outbreak has been: don’t worry, only the sick and frail are dying. But as journalist and author, Dr Frances Ryan points out, “the message that coronavirus is relatively safe for 98% of the population isn’t exactly reassuring if you fall into the other 2%.”
Don’t we all know someone in that 2%?
Reacting to the expression of anxiety from others with a phrase like “I’m sure everything will be okay” sounds empty at best and dismissive at worst. We should remember that these feelings are real, so denying them only alienates and isolates us.
The first step then is to acknowledge what others are going through, and show that we’re open to listening, connecting and understanding.
While we can’t predict the future, we can all offer some thoughtful words of reassurance beyond “stay positive” and “things will work out in the end”. A good example comes from the California State Government in the header of their website:
We’re all in this together. We are working rapidly to keep our state healthy.
From their homepage, you’re instantly directed to applying for disability benefits, unemployment, help for small businesses — all of which instil trust and provide some reassurance in difficult times.
Consider your word choice
We’re living in a time when we’re having to face difficult subjects. Sickness, death, our own mortality. It’s important to remember that something that’s easy for us to discuss might be triggering for someone else. As our vocabulary evolves to include new phrases like social distancing and self-isolation, we should be mindful of scaremongering and sensationalising. Clarify what’s fact and what’s opinion.
Let’s be inclusive and respectful in how we talk to and about people too. We can’t know what people are thinking or how they’re feeling all of the time, but we can be sensitive to who they are and how their situation might be. Take care in how you talk about things like age, gender and disability. Perhaps now is the perfect time for us to learn about and celebrate all of these things that make us humans such a wonderful and diverse species.
- Check out NHS guidelines for inclusive language
- Read Grammarly’s introduction to the language of gender and sexuality
- Become familiar with the social model of disability on Scope’s website
- See what Mailchimp says about writing about people
- Read how the DWP talks about death
Keep things simple and clear
When we search and read online, we’re scanning for the information we want, rather than reading every sentence. And when we’re under stress, the way we process and retain information might change.
So how can we keep our written communications as simple and clear as possible? The following are some basics:
- Give only relevant information (what people need to know, rather than what’s nice for them to know)
- Provide the most important information upfront (also known as front-loading)
- Use short sentences and plenty of paragraphs to break up information
- Include subheadings to make scanning quicker
- Stick to familiar, everyday words — in the current climate, use coronavirus rather than COVID: 19
- Avoid jargon and technical terms, or explain them fully
- Read everything you write out loud, and simplify anything that you stumble over
Facts and figures are important to support what we say, but they’re sometimes too big, too abstract, too overwhelming for us to grasp clearly. Think about the information you want people to understand, and don’t be afraid to spell it out or try visual ways of presenting it. You may want to consider:
- giving examples or telling stories about people to make data more relatable and human
- using an image or graphic to illustrate it better
- sticking to just one idea or piece of information per sentence or paragraph
It can be hard to know what to say during difficult times. Messages of positivity sometimes sound empty in the face of great uncertainty. But if we take a little time to think about how we can communicate with care and empathy, we can help:
- make people feel seen, connected and included
- create a sense of community, no matter how remote we are
- promote kind and helping behaviours
- keep people at the centre of the story
- keep biases in check
By pausing to think before we rush to send out that email, tweet or text, paying more attention to what we say, and remembering to listen, we can make everyone feel a little more supported, connected and safe in a time of crisis like this.
If you have any ideas to add, please comment below — I’d love to hear from you!