10 ways to communicate with empathy and authority in times of crisis

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Written by

Hayley Hawthorne, Ph.D.

For the most up-to-date information on the Coronavirus visit the World Health Organization’s website here, and view their latest advice on public self-care here.

In everyday business communication, the best communicators exhibit a balance of empathy and authority. Warmth-and-strength is always the appropriate tone combination, not only when it comes to what you say, but also in the way you say it.

But the qualities of empathy and authority are even more critical in the wake of a global crisis like the one we’re experiencing right now. During a crisis, information is gold. Good communication can lead to comfort and educated preparedness, while poor communication can lead to a lack of trust and exacerbate panic.

So, what exactly does “empathy” mean right now? It means focusing on goodwill and doing no harm. It means prioritizing people and their well-being. Making decisions that are in your employees’ and customers’ best interest. This may sound simple, but it’s not always easy to execute. Here are some tips to help you navigate communication in the midst of a challenging situation.

How to show empathy during a crisis

1. Actively listen

Remember, during a crisis people are scared. Active listening requires both body language and verbal cues to let them know you care. Examples of empathetic nonverbals can be head nodding, smiling, using a warm and relaxed tone.

2. Acknowledge their fears

Displaying empathy through solidarity can assuage concerns. Everyone has the right to feel a certain way, including fearful, and it’s okay to let them know. Statements such as “you are right to feel the way you do” and “it’s easy to be fearful at times like this” can build openness to discussion and help move people toward hope.

3. Offer flexibility

If possible, allow employees to work remotely and virtually. Many companies have already adopted a remote workforce environment, so this might require minimal to no change for your organization. But for those who don’t have virtual communication built into their infrastructure, consider this an opportunity to change and adapt.

4. Seek opportunities to learn and grow

While crisis can be detrimental to normal business operations, such as having to cancel events it can also lead to positive growth and learning. In the 4th Industrial Revolution, as we all aim to digitally transform, most of us will need to adjust to a virtual communication option. And, while some may be concerned about how remote work and work-from-home flexibility may impact business, research shows that there are a variety of benefits when companies provide remote work flexibility. Those may include: an increase in productivity, increased morale, less stress for workers, and lower operating costs.

We are already seeing signs of this positive growth and learning opportunity. Many Silicon Valley tech companies have leveraged their built-in virtual infrastructure and transformed massive in-person events into virtual meetings to protect participants’ health. Even some public schools are planning to conduct remote education for several weeks.

5. Consider the most appropriate medium

If your organization handles crisis communication via email, consider this: it can be difficult to detect tone in writing. When left to interpretation, written words can scare people unnecessarily. If you can hold a remote meeting with cameras turned on, consider doing that. Or send a video message via email. Allowing your team to see your face will likely improve the warmth behind the message and prevent the content from feeling scary. In fact, the World Health organization says that face-to-face interaction helps people deal with emotions in times of disease and crisis. If email is still the most likely and preferred medium for communicating about a crisis, make sure your message communicates empathy and authority.

Why do we discuss empathy before authority? At Duarte, we’ve learned that your audience is more likely to listen to what you have to say when they feel you’re on their side. Through empathy, you earn the permission and authority to lead them. So what does authority mean right now? It means leading your team in a way that makes them feel confident in your message and trusting in you as a leader.


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How to demonstrate authority during a crisis

6. Build trust

To feel confident to act on your recommendations and direction, your team has to trust you. Why is trust so critical in a crisis? Because, according to several studies, the more we trust the people who are supposed to protect or inform us, the less afraid we will be. The less we trust them, the greater our fears. To build trust, communicators must manage expectations and communicate openly, honestly, and often.

7. Show competence through your delivery

Part of building trust is being perceived as competent. Research shows that avoiding upward inflections (a.k.a. upspeak or upticking) and speaking with a low-pitched voice expresses power and appears more competent.

8. Arm audience with facts

Knowledge is power, and during a crisis information and events can move quickly. Educate your team on the best ways to take care of themselves and others. Provide your team with updated links to reputable sources with accurate and up-to-date information that includes advice. For example, you can send them the latest updates from the World Health Organization WHO and advice from the WHO. Research shows, the more people are armed with facts and understand what they can do to take care of and protect themselves, the more they will gain self confidence that they can care for themselves. If the data you’re delivering is particularly dense, try wrapping your recommendation in a DataStory to really make an impact on people.

9. Don’t panic

Your team/coworkers will look to you for guidance on how what feelings and actions make sense in a crisis. Anxiety is contagious. Try not to create unnecessary fear. Panic can undo any positive steps made during a crisis.

10. Practice what you preach

It’s helpful to tell your team to wash their hands or tell them it’s OK to work remotely. But studies show that in a public health crisis, it’s not enough to comfort with words; leaders must follow up with action. Research says that a disconnect between words and actions could actually increase fear. So communicators should behave in ways that align with their verbal and nonverbal communication in order to address fears and bring reassurance. For instance, if you offer work-from-home flexibility for employees to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, practice it yourself.

At Duarte, we’ve always been audience-first advocates. During this public health event, your audience is likely dealing with some nerves. Think about what your audience needs from you in order to feel calmer and more competent. They are seeking something beyond than comfort, flexibility, and understanding. They crave knowledge, competence, and trust in their leadership. As a communicator, if you can offer them both empathy and authority, it’s more likely your team and your organization will emerge from this trying time feeling stronger and more secure.




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