This is the first part in a series on tension and tragedy.
We often don’t know what to say. And we don’t want to say the wrong thing. If you’re like me, you’ve wrestled with these feelings as you’ve heard about the recent violence in the United States (Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, Dallas, etc.) and worldwide (Nice, Paris, etc.). It’s horrifying, and it’s overwhelming.
Where can we possibly start?
And if we don’t know where to start, we can default to silence or avoiding the topics altogether. But there are two simple skills we can exercise as leaders to communicate simply and respectfully with people, even amidst sensitive and complex events:
- Seek to understand.
When you see someone who might have been impacted by the events (e.g. an ethnic minority, someone associated with law enforcement, or someone from France), simply ask them, “What is it like for you to hear that news?”
- Acknowledge hard realities.
If someone you know is clearly having a tough time, listen to them and acknowledge the reality of what you see in them: “It sounds like this has hit you hard, and has been challenging.”
Most other good things will fall into place, if we do these two things consistently.
They’re very simple leadership skills, and don’t require research or high level education to do. We can start with close to zero knowledge of the situations, and still do an incredible amount of good. Ethnic minorities ‒ and most leaders who are impacted by these events ‒ don’t need us to be experts, as much as they need us to make an effort to understand and know them. They want to know they’re not alone, and that their pain and struggles are seen by people who care.
While this is simple, it doesn’t mean it’s easy and we can run into many pitfalls. For instance:
- We assume instead of asking.
- We speak too much, instead of truly listening and empathizing.
Sometimes it is true that less = more. We may have our own opinions, and there will be a time to share those appropriately. That time is just a bit later than we ordinarily think.
So at the next opportunity to engage these topics, or any kind of challenging situations among the people you’re leading:
Seek to understand. Say, “I don’t fully know what you’re going through or how you’ve been impacted … but I want to understand. I’d love if you could share more with me, now and in the future.”
Acknowledge hard realities. “That must have been challenging” is a phrase that will almost always be helpful (and not hurtful). I use it a lot in leadership.
Even when tragedy strikes that feels foreign or complex to us, there are always things we can say.
And in the next post, we’ll discuss some things we can do … because words are important, but actions are too. Until then, let’s all keep learning and practicing good leadership! Thank you for reading.