Communicating compassion during crisis

Using your communication skills to lead, inspire, and heal

Text by Leah Guren


Image: © PRUDENCIOALVAREZ-istockphoto

For me as for many others, 2023 has been an incredibly stressful year, with one ongoing crisis being completely overshadowed by a different and more terrible crisis. Everyone I know is exhausted, traumatized, and struggling.

I found myself discussing the business side of the crisis with several friends, all of whom are full-time employees. Since I am self-employed, I was curious to hear how their employers were responding. All reported favorably on how their bosses and companies were being sensitive.

It occurred to me that while TechComm professionals are not necessarily known for their highly nuanced or emotional content (we usually leave that to the Marcom writers!), we are experts at clear communication, which is one of the requirements of crisis communication. Perhaps we can find a way to use that skill to help those around us in times of crisis.

You don’t have to be a manager…

…you just have to be a human being. People often mistakenly believe that only managers or team leaders need to worry about the “soft and squishy” (those ambiguous people- or soft skills). Nothing could be further from the truth. If you interact with other people in your job, you need to be able to deal with them as human beings, not just components of a project.

TechComm practitioners are no different from other professionals; we have more successful careers if we can work well with others. If you want a satisfying and opportunity-rich career, you need to embrace these “squishy” people skills, even if you never move into a management position.

Dealing with an individual’s crisis

Fifteen years ago, I was serving on the board of directors of an organization based in the United States. Everyone on the board knew that my sister had cancer. When she died, I notified the board and handed off my time-critical board tasks for the duration of the mourning period.

When I returned for the next meeting, the chair blandly announced, “Leah is back,” and that was it. There was no acknowledgment of my loss. Not one person offered condolences. Sadly, I never felt the same toward them after that.

A good friend of mine, Irene, had a similar experience. Irene’s brother passed away while she was working at a large accounting firm. She had been there for years and everyone knew that her brother was battling a fatal disease. They even knew the date and time of the funeral. But no one said anything. “It felt like a personal betrayal,” Irene told me.

When people are going through an individual crisis, whether it is the loss of a loved one, an illness, an accident, or even something as banal as a ruptured water main flooding their house, the personal crisis becomes their key point of focus. We cannot expect people to turn off those thoughts when they walk into the office.

Acknowledge loss: There are no magic words. Don’t get hung up on being original or meaningful. Sometimes, “I’m sorry for your loss” is the only thing you can say. What is important is that you do not wait, you do not stay silent (even if you feel awkward or embarrassed), and you do not abdicate your responsibility and assume that it is someone else’s job. Never underestimate how important those simple words of acknowledgment are for the person dealing with loss.

Don’t insert your philosophy or religion: “It’s for the best” or “He’s in heaven now” can be very hurtful and inappropriate. Not every religion has the same beliefs regarding death and an afterlife. It is presumptuous to assume that this person shares your exact beliefs. Stay neutral and just acknowledge that person’s experience of grief or loss. The funniest example of that was someone telling a colleague who had lost his house, “Well, it was a really ugly house, so now you can build a nicer one!”

Make your support specific: For a person in crisis, the vague “Let me know if you need anything” offer can be frustrating. I learned this from a very wise friend many years ago. She always made very specific offers, which made it much easier for the person to choose something appropriate: I can cook a meal, I can take care of the pets, I can run errands for you on Thursday, etc. For your coworkers, think about something specific you can do to ease their situation. For example, when a graphic artist’s son was in hospital, we told him we would release the draft for review using placeholders for all of the graphics. We let all reviewers know what was going on. There were no problems.

Don’t force the hug: Some cultures are definitely more comfortable with hugging and kissing than others. A hug is intended to comfort the person and show empathy and compassion. And while some coworkers may need that hug as much as they need oxygen, others may find it intrusive and stressful. When in doubt, don’t!

Check in often: Acknowledging a person’s crisis is not a “one-and-done” event. Don’t treat it as something you can tick off your to-do list. A real crisis is not something someone gets over in a day. Therefore, check in with that person once in a while. Ask how they are. I once worked on a project where one of the team members, Earl, had his house struck by lightning. (Yes, that was the “ugly” house!) While everyone escaped unharmed, the house and all their belongings were destroyed in the ensuing fire. At the start of every weekly team meeting, the PM would have Earl give us a 60-second status on the rebuild process. It became a ritual that made Earl feel supported and appreciated, and made us feel more connected. It only cost the PM one minute a week to build immeasurable goodwill and productivity.

Dealing with a business crisis

Sometimes, we face a crisis within an organization that affects many employees. These include:

  • Layoffs after financial losses
  • A proposed plan to move the company to a different city
  • The company being sold
  • A hostile takeover
  • Rumors of changes to the remote- or flex-work policy

Inevitably, productivity and employee satisfaction fall during times of uncertainty. When information is not open and clear, employees will worry, feel anxious, and listen to unreliable office rumors.

While communication has to come from the top, there are things that we can do to promote it.

Communicate honestly: Ideally, management needs to be honest with people, even if it means letting them know that the situation is evolving. People are less likely to feel anxious about their jobs if they have a reliable source of information from management. The best crisis communication acknowledges the problem, states what is being done to resolve it, and gives some sort of timeframe to expect a resolution (or at least more information).

Offer your services: Ideally, your company has a crisis communication strategy in place. However, if you see that management is struggling to communicate clearly during a crisis, that may be a sign that they do not have an effective crisis communication strategy, or that the wrong person is responsible for the messaging. I’ve seen companies use messaging crafted by the legal team, which only makes things worse. Rather than allay fears, the pompous, unintelligible tone feeds into the uncertainty and employee anger. If you have access to management, show them an edited version of the message and offer to do a quick turn-around edit before each message.

Avoid gossip and speculation: The rumors and company gossip feed into fear and anxiety. For your own sanity, try to avoid getting pulled into “what if” conversations. While you cannot stop your team members from indulging in gossip, you can set the tone by your own actions.

Dealing with a broader crisis

Extreme weather, civil unrest, terror attacks, and pandemics are all examples of bigger crises that can impact not just an individual or a company, but everyone in the area. Work disruptions may range from staffing shortfalls to the complete closure of the facilities for an extended period.

Don’t pretend it’s not happening: Start with recognizing that it happened or is happening. Companies that try to ignore the crisis and just continue normal operations lose credibility. If there are lumps of molten lava falling outside, and your company’s lobby just has posters promoting the latest product release, I have to wonder if your management is sharing the same reality as the rest of us.

Give people opportunities to volunteer: Whether it is a company-sponsored food drive, blood drive, or a program to tutor children, knowing that your company is taking action, and that you can participate in it, makes people feel less helpless. Even individuals who themselves are recipients of assistance may want to volunteer in some capacity. Doing something is one of the best antidotes for depression.

Understand that no one will be functioning at 100%: Readjust expectations on project deadlines. If you find yourself staring at the same page for ten minutes, or rereading the same Help topic over and over with no comprehension, you are not alone. Try to set a more realistic goal for yourself and for your teammates.  

Don’t try to normalize stoicism: Different cultures handle public emotions differently. But stern stoicism, keeping everything bottled up, or hiding what you are feeling is just a temporary survival strategy. Ultimately, it creates worse emotional problems down the line. During times of major crises, people need to know that it is OK to safely vent what they are feeling. That is, they can’t yell and scream at other employees, but if they need to get away from their desks, take a walk, or go sit in the stairwell and sob, so be it. A friend of mine, badly injured in the military, taught me about the five-minute pity party. She would allow herself five minutes to rant, get angry at the unfairness, the pain, and the frustration of lost mobility, and then she would wash her face, take a deep breath, and get on with her day. During the past weeks, I’ve watched many people (myself included) have their version of a brief pity party after removing themselves from where children, coworkers, or customers are present.


Our world is full of risk and potential trauma, so it is impossible to imagine a work environment where no one is suffering from a crisis. But by learning to communicate compassion, rather than just product information, we can help build stronger teams and create a more rewarding work environment.

Do you have a story about communicating compassion during crisis? Please share it with us!