In People Skills
Essential communication skills: compassionate communication

Being left out. Not feeling part of the gang. Standing on the outside staring in. We can avoid these feelings with compassionate communication.


Many of us will have felt these feelings at some point in our lives. No-one wants to feel that distance from others, knowing there is a ‘them’ and ‘us’ and that the ‘us’ is last to know what is going on. It doesn’t just feel awful at the time but for a long time after. Our brains are super sensitive to social rejection and these memories stick.


The COVID environment means most people are not just physically distancing but, inadvertently, mentally distancing too. When you are no longer bumping into colleagues in the office every day or having a catch-up making tea in the communal kitchen, there is a layer of disconnect. As much as you may have kept in touch with everyone on Zoom and email, there can still be a nagging doubt as to whether you are being kept in the loop. Where there are nagging doubts, communication vacuums open up and tend to get filled pretty quickly by rumour and gossip. Particularly unhelpful when things are already pretty uncertain.


If your job involves managing others then being ultra-sensitive to these worries is vital right now. If you approach your team with compassionate communication then you can ensure you fill the communication vacuum so it doesn’t get filled for you. In recognising the uncertainty and directing your communications around a framework where autonomy can flourish, your team will feel part of a community, have a sense of belonging and be passionate towards achieving their purpose.


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The importance of routines and processes


Routines and processes are really important to compassionate communication. They offer stability. We know from psychologists that stability is important for good mental health. It is why leaders like Barak Obama, Steve Jobs and even Einstein always wore the same style and colour of clothes. It gave them a routine and meant they didn’t have to waste limited decision-making capacity to work out what to wear each day. As many of our previous working routines, like team huddles around a whiteboard have gone, finding other ways to give the same information, regularly and openly, will maintain that constancy and reduce mental fatigue.


In an ideal world you would be able to give your teams certainty of content. But post lockdown there are still too many shifting sands. What you can do is offer certainty of communication – giving team members the security that you will share what you do know when you can. Even when there is no news, explaining the processes and when you might know more helps people cope much better with the uncertainty surrounding them.


Finally, we can be pretty good at establishing the formal channels. They help to check assumptions and understanding and can be tailored for different audiences. But it is imperative not to forget the informal ones; the ones equivalent to the chat you have while waiting for the kettle to boil in the kitchen. Informal channels offer feedback loops so you also feel engaged with what is happening on the ground. They remain vital but you might need to get quite creative with designing them. Team socials, having virtual lunch together or sharing ‘life in lockdown’ posts can all help build that ‘we are in it together’ feeling.




Seven steps to compassionate communication:

1People crave comfort and clarity so when going through any type of change discuss what will be different but also emphasise what will stay the same.
2People also want to feel special and valued so show you care by regularly checking in and finding out what is going well for them and where any frustrations lie.
3It can be really tempting to hold off giving any information until you have lots of clarity – we never get as much clarity as we would like and holding off just leaves a dangerous communications gap so give information in a little but often style. You’ll take more people with you that way.
4Consider the tone of language and metaphors used. Some people respond well to language focused on battles or fighting talk, others withdraw – it is better to develop a brand language that is truly inclusive.
5It is really important to be transparent. If there is bad news say so. Trying to give bad news a positive spin usually lands badly as people see straight through it and not only remain unconvinced but also become sceptical.
6If you can set realistic expectations about what you currently know, when you might know more and what you are doing to find out information you’ll give some security and less of a vacuum for the gossips to fill.
7Ideally focus on one message at a time and use both formal and informal channels to tailor the message to each audience. We remember only one key thing from each conversation we have. Compassionate communication helps make sure that one thing is what will make a difference.
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