How to Communicate Calmly in a Crisis

At the consulting company Exec-Comm, Jay Sullivan specializes in teaching people how to communicate, including in crisis situations. Years working both as in-house counsel at a homeless shelter for runaway youth and in corporate law taught him the skills necessary to be an effective counselor. An early interest in teaching brought him to Exec-Comm, where he works with lawyers and other executives on honing their messages in the workplace.

“The skills I knew I would need as a lawyer actually come into play every day in this job,” he says. Those skills include thinking on your feet, convincing an audience, dissecting complex ideas, explaining messages clearly to others, and influencing and persuading others. When he works with lawyers on their communication skills, he notes, they come armed with a critical eye—a unique facet that gives them an important vantage point in crises. Law school teaches you that there’s always another side to the story, he says, while empathy tells us that there are other feelings involved that also have to be added to the equation. Awareness of both is crucial for effective lawyering, he says, as well as for effective communications.

In Brescia and Stern’s edited volume, Sullivan bridges his experience as a lawyer with his work as an executive coach to distill concrete lessons for those looking to communicate or work with others in the midst of crisis. To manage a crisis in the moment, he writes in the chapter, “Stay Calm and Carry On: How to Stay on Point When in Crisis,” you must:

  1. Hone a clear and succinct message.
  2. Support your message through stories or by leveraging authority.
  3. Address the emotions expressed by others.
  4. Offer the other person a semblance of control.
  5. Control your own emotions when challenged.
  6. Stay focused in the face of a myriad of distractions.

Overarching through this is the single message Sullivan conveys in his communication coaching: focus on others.

Sullivan tries to make the idea of focusing on others as concrete as possible for people in his workshops. He challenges participants to avoid using phrases like, “What I want to talk about today is…,” which emphasizes what the speaker “wants.” He instead encourages people to use, “What I thought might be helpful to you today is….” It’s not just a semantic change. The new word choice reflects a different attitude.

He says:

The minute you start with that language, two things happen. First, you’ve told your audience—and it can be an audience of one or an audience of 100—you’ve told them, I’ve put all my energy into thinking about you and your needs. But more importantly, before you even get to that meeting, if you’re thinking about, “Okay, helpful to them…helpful to them…what’s going to be helpful to them?” then you start changing what you are going to share based on that objective. It’s not about me and what I want. It’s about them and what’s genuinely helpful to them.

The concept of focusing on others means always assuming there are more facts than what you know and knowing that there are always more emotions than just what you’re feeling. There are concrete steps you can take to practice both. And practice, Sullivan emphasizes, is key.

Published in The Practice: Harvard Law – See the article

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