Real Talk: We’re Not Vulcans, We’re Human Beings

On the 14th of July, Dave Dyson (Sr. Customer Service Evangelist of Zendesk) presented about Keeping It Cool In a Crisis, in conversation with Dan Scheltinga.

(Part 5 of many. I represented Real World Technology Solutions at RelateLive, Zendesk’s conference on customer experience (July, Sydney). All of the views expressed below are my own, independent of my relationships with Real World and Zendesk.)

(sourced from D.Dyson’s slideshare)

It started out with ships. The presentation, I mean. The presentation started out with ships.

Dave opened up with some pretty simple setting-the-scene analogies.

“This ship is your business.”

Which ship? Any of the ships below:

Boats, boats, boats. More boats. (sourced from DDyson’s SlideShare)

(Don’t worry. More options come later.)

So, have you chosen one for now? Good, because:

This ship is your business.

Your support team = the crew.
An unexpected problem = the iceberg.
Your customers = the passengers.
Your product = the cargo.

Analogies are some of my favourite things in the world — thanks to my 4th grade teacher Mrs. Baker who drilled us in parallel comparisons.



(image source: from Mathias Jakobson’s Visual Thinking workshop)

This is the true value of good teachers: when their lessons live on far past them. Thusly, I was following along with all of these comparisons smoothly and happily.

Side note: this was a fantastic example of material from the Visual Thinking workshop with Mathias Jakobsen — which I attended the week before Relate Live.

Mathias had been highlighting the benefit of using metaphors in ideation and facilitation. Take something familiar, universally known (like restaurants, or being a parent, or.. in this case: ships) — and map it onto something niche, specific, and integrated into our professional context (read: an element of work).

Once we’ve agreed on the parallels of people, places, things, and actions (in this case, between businesses and ships), where do we go from there?

This presentation is about Red Alerts, and keeping it cool in a crisis. So — of course — the most relevant question Dave has been saving in the bank is:

“What do you do when the ship hits the fan?”

Genius, Dave. Genius. I’m entirely on board with you and with this metaphor.

(sourced from D.Dyson’s slideshare)

But outside of the perfectly-timed Dad-level pun, Dave provides us with definitions (while still maximising the humour factors along the way):

What is this “Red Alert” that you speak of?

Categories of Bad

  • Service Disruption
  • Security Incident
  • Legal Entanglement
  • Public Relationships Nightmare
  • Physical Emergency

None of these situations are good, and they all need to be mitigated. But what is the overall goal, according to Dave?

Don’t react like Star Trek.

(sourced from D.Dyson’s slideshare)

(Side note, I had to find out the process for this genius comparison: )

Genius. I approve.

Joking (somewhat) aside, difficult things happen. They are inevitable. We can’t rely on them to happen the same way each time, to affect the same parts of our business, or even to break helpfully (i.e. in a way we can easily mitigate). Bad news doesn’t behave itself in public, which is why we don’t take it out for coffee. It’s unpredictable, and we don’t know what it will do next.

The first goals in mitigating a crisis of any kind, according to Dave:

  • (Don’t react like Star Trek. In fact, respond, don’t react.)
  • Repair trust with your customers
  • Restore service ASAP
  • Maintain a consistent response
(sourced from Relate Live)

Alluding to the science of perception in human interactions and communications, Dave referred back to a keynote from the San Francisco Relate Live — given by Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson (Social Psychologist, and Associate Director of Columbia University’s Motivation Science Center). The keynote was titled: “None of Us Understand Each Other and What to Do About It.” (I would have given anything to see this. Hey, Relate, is there a recording of this one? In the meantime, here’s Relate’s summary):

Ever get the feeling that no one understands you? That you and your customers or colleagues are just talking past one another? You’re not alone. With miscommunication as the biggest culprit of business acrimony, it’s no wonder that so many customer service interactions go awry. That’s why, in this talk, researcher, author, and blogger Heidi Grant Halvorson shares how we can get out of our own minds and make sure our message is heard. Using research from her latest book, Halvorson demonstrates the science of perception, so you’ll communicate more clearly, send the messages you intend, and improve your relationships. Even those tricky customer service ones. ​

I don’t know whether Dave borrowed this standard of measurement from Heidi’s talk, but I do know — it’s another form of his genius presentation:

(sourced from D.Dyson’s slideshare)

I imagine we’re all familiar enough with the Simpsons at least to recognise them as archetypes in this scenario. The aim is to not be like Moe (low competence, low warmth), not like Mr. Burns (high competence, low warmth), and not like Homer (d’oh! Low competence, high warmth). The aim is to be like Lisa Simpson. High in competence for our areas of expertise, and our ability to solve and communicate a solution about the crisis at hand — and at the same time: warm, personable. Empathetic. Caring. Kind.

“We are not Vulcans. We’re human beings. Stress gets to us as well.”

In short, know what you’re saying, and say it with kindness.

What are the ingredients for success in handling a crisis, according to Dave?

  • Plan ahead. (Dave even wrote a lovely haiku for the occasion: “A Red Alert is/not the time to figure out/how to handle one.”)
  • Stay calm — emotions are contagious. “One baby cries, all the babies cry.” (So. True.)
  • As a leader, your actions carry extra weight. If you’re nervous, your team will be too. (I feel like the “one baby, all babies” thing is still relevant here… Just saying…)
  • Empathise. Show that you care. This is important for your customers, clients, stakeholders, shareholders, and staff on every level.

At this point, Dave made a handy study sheet of qualities of Active Listening:

  • Leave your ego behind. It gets in the way.
  • It doesn’t hurt you to validate that frustration is normal. (Can you go back and read that one more time? Here, I’ll help: It doesn’t hurt you to validate that frustration is normal.)
  • Let them speak. Let. Them. Speak.
  • Verbal “nods”. I can’t hear you agree with me over the phone, if you’re not giving me some kind of indication.
  • Reflect what they say.
  • Validate their emotions

These last two are sometimes harder to do subtly, but the effect is amazing: when you have successfully reflected back someone’s position and validated their emotions, they begin to agree with themselves — and give themselves permission to let go of difficult positions or challenging feelings. It’s kind of like the best kind of magic.

Okay, so now we know a bit more about how to respond emotionally. But what to include in your Red Alert Plans? Processes. Roles & Duties (who is in charge at what point?) Staffing (so you don’t have the question of too many/not enough hands on deck). Tools. Special Cases. Metrics.

(sourced from D.Dyson’s slideshare)

This will be no surprise to those who know me well — I’m not a metrics person. Being completely honest, what I loved the most was Dave’s commentary on communications.

Your documentation, he says, has to be complete, clear, accessible, and up-to-date. It has to include details of the process and the relevant people. Who has the nuclear launch codes? Who can diffuse the situation best?

It’s better to say “we’re working on it” than to wait too long until you have something to say.

When it comes to communication, you need to have answers for a list of factors:

  • You need to have internal communications. So everyone is clear about what’s going on, and how to form a united front.
  • You need to have external communications. And those external communications need to answer three things: 1) is this information useful? 2) Is it transparent? 3) Is it accurate?
  • Within each of those qualities (useful, transparent, accurate), businesses should also strive for communications that are timely, compassionate, and honest.
  • Speak with one voice. Find the company tone, find the company voice, and speak from within it. Always.

“Tell them what you would want to know.” — Susan Griffin-Black, EO Products

Dave continued on with examples specific to Zendesk (including giving us insight into the Zencident Room, an outline of their communication cadence (what we share, and when), and what a service disruption post-mortem should include.

But all of those (highly relevant) details aside, I was caught up in the desire he voiced for how all businesses should handle a crisis: He emphasised wider proactive communication.


One of my personal missions in life is to revolutionise communications in business organisations.

It’s not an attempt to re-invent the wheel. More so: a fix for what I believe doesn’t currently work.

We have not — as a general observation — been indoctrinated into businesses that provide us with flexible examples of ways to relate to each other. There are procedures to follow. Some of these procedures even have good reasoning (HR considerations, factors of personal privacy, needing to draw a professional line in the sand). Some of the procedures have no precedent at all. They are just rules for rules’ sake. Or the lazy man’s model: not wanting to put in the effort to build effective styles of communication.

Too many of these procedures are just a lack of conversation models. An inability to relate to our staff, customers, employees, or co-workers on a human-to-human level. Too many of these gaps in emotional intelligence are a result of having incorrect, inaccurate — or entirely inefficient — models of communication.

Every business is different. I don’t subscribe to a one-size-fits all mentality. Before my current role with Real World, I worked with quite a few companies in Sydney as a consultant: I looked at their communications strategy, alignment with a brand tone and identity, and editorial needs. I mostly focused on the outward-facing conversations. And now currently, I’m working with Real World to overhaul our internal-facing conversations by redesigning a new model of human-centric management.

The short summary: “Real World Technology (Sydney) is creating a new management model that marries data analytics with communications and interpersonal awareness in order to asses, adapt, and evolve as a human-centric business.”

What is important in any communication strategy, no matter how innovative or traditional the model? The will to exercise, grow, and develop the human-centric empathetic muscle.

When you practice speaking calmly in a crisis, synthesising clear information directly and with patient kindness — it becomes easier to do in daily practices internally. Your co-workers’ tics become less annoying. You develop more empathy for the personal plights your desk-mate might be going through. You may even gain some good conflict-resolution skills in case your relationship with your work-spouse ever needs some HR-style marriage counselling.

And what is true here is also true in reverse: if your company is highly skilled at empathy and understanding in daily office culture, start to look at how you can integrate and embed those practices into your Red Alert crisis response for client communications.

Where do you start?

I can’t speak for the advice Dave would give you (though, from the tone of his inter-personal focus, I suspect he might agree with my suppositions).

I suggest: Start with your weakness. If you know your company can’t handle stress, start to take that apart. If you can’t handle daily disclosures on a person-to-person human level — but you work best in a crisis — look at that first.

Ask yourself:

  • How are you doing what you are doing well?
  • What are the characteristics of your strengths?
  • Where are the missing spaces of your weaknesses?

It’s precisely these kinds of questions that will put you on a path to effective self-reflection, crisis mitigation, and ultimately communication success — so that your business may live long and prosper.

(Dave, I think it should almost go without saying: I geeked out over your talk, in more ways than one.)

More soon.

Emma Sedlak
Communications Manager
Real World Technology Solutions

a nomadic poet with her hands in too many books. Lives at, works as a communications designer, moonlights as an opera singer/actress.

a nomadic poet with her hands in too many books. Lives at, works as a communications designer, moonlights as an opera singer/actress.