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You Don’t Understand!

Uncategorized Nov 09, 2017
Four tips to help leaders communicate with people during difficult times.

“When you really listen to another person from their point of view, and reflect back to them that understanding, it's like giving them emotional oxygen.

- Stephen Covey

Has anyone ever told you they “understand” what you’re going through during a very difficult situation? Most of the time the people who say they ‘understand’ are trying to be sincere and compassionate, but it can be disheartening at times, especially if know they really don’t understand. If you think about it, nobody can fully understand what you are thinking and feeling when you are going through a difficult time. They may have a good idea or experienced a similar event, but rarely has anyone experienced the same exact situation that you are going through.

From a leadership standpoint, this can be a daily challenge. As a leader, every time you say you understand, it can be a damaging blow to the professional relationships with your people. Generally, people really don’t want to hear that you ‘understand’ because it has a way of downplaying their situation. It can almost be demeaning at times.

Everyone is different, and every situation has different external factors and people involved. There are no two identical difficult situations. Leaders should be cautious to say they ‘understand’ what their people are going through. However, there are effective ways to handle this leadership challenge.

Leaders who try to understand what their people are going through can usually communicate more effectively with them. Here’s a few tips that I’ve learned over the years that have helped me; feel free to add your own helpful tips in the comments, on how you address your people’s difficult situations.

Listen (and keep quiet!)

One of the best things you can do as a leader when your people are going through a difficult situation is be willing to listen to them. Give them your full attention and let them talk. Don’t feel compelled to fix the problem; simply listen and take it all in. A good listener can be extremely tough to find at times, so lend an ear and let them talk without any interruptions. Talking is a great way to get things out in the open and release inner tensions.

Ask Clarifying Questions (only after listening)

After you have thoroughly listened without trying to ‘fix’ their difficult situation, you can ask clarifying questions. If needed, these questions can be asked during the conversation to keep them talking, especially if they get real quiet. Keep in mind, they may not be ready to answer a lot of questions, and/or they may not want to share, so be prepared for silence. Silence can also be a great form of therapy for difficult situations… don’t interrupt it!

What Can I Do?

By asking your people what you can do for them, you are telling them you care and want to help. You may not be able to do anything, but offering this question has a tendency to break down barriers. They may need some time off to resolve issues; they may need resources; they may need to talk a few more times while they work through their situation. They may need an extension on a deadline or some assistance with a task. By asking what you can do, you are essentially telling them you are there for them, and will support them through their difficult time. This can have a huge impact.

Know Your Support Systems

Having a list of local support systems can be extremely helpful when your employees are going through difficult times. Get to know what your local community offers and keep a copy handy to give to your people when needed. Ask around for referrals before difficult situations arise. Being proactive can save you time and help get your people the assistance they may need. You can also develop a list of people who have gone through a similar situation and share their name with the person who is struggling. Be sure not to share any information unless you get permission upfront to share their information.

The bottom line is that as leaders, it’s rare that we fully understand the difficult situations that our people are going through. However, when leaders say they ‘understand’ it can be damaging, even demeaning at times, to the person who is hearing it. If leaders take the time to listen to their people, ask clarifying questions, ask how they can help, and offer outside support to their people, they can build solid professional relationships while they help their people through their difficult situations. Choose not to say you ‘understand.’ Instead, show them you are willing to walk through the difficult situation with them. Showing you support them through their difficult times will build a dedicated workforce who will stick together through rough times.

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