On Monday morning, my family and I were driving back to Milwaukee from a weekend away, when we learned of the tragedy that befell the Sikh community in Oak Creek. We were stunned, angered, and saddened by this senseless act of violence in our very own community. My husband glanced back at our 7 month-old son, sleeping in the back, and asked, “How could we ever explain something like this to Nash?”
The next day, Nash and I were on the way to a library Storytime when I heard an interesting piece on our local NPR station. The segment addressed how to answer children’s questions after traumatic events – events that can be hard for even adults to understand.
The guest, Mary Esser, is a child psychologist for Milwaukee Public Schools, and she highlighted some communication principles for facilitating dialogue around these difficult topics. I couldn’t help but notice that her key recommendations for children were 100% relevant to adult and workplace communication as well.
I’m not suggesting that difficult workplace scenarios are even comparable to this shooting tragedy (although sometimes we over-react and believe that issues at work are tragic, don’t we?). I do think that we all can learn a great lesson about responding to any difficult situation from this interview.
Mary suggests that the first thing to do when responding to a difficult situation is not to “do” anything at all, but to listen and observe. How often is our knee-jerk reaction to do just that – react. Say something. Do something. Fix something. Imagine if leaders simply watched to get a pulse for what real feelings and reactions were before responding. Imagine if leaders listened to our questions and concerns first. This would create a culture of free speech. Dialogue would naturally unfold because dialogue is two-way and authentic.
Next, she suggests the best response is an honest one, even if it means saying “I don’t know.” Transparency, for children and adults alike, fosters honesty and trust. She suggests sticking to facts and avoiding speculation. For many of us, uncertainty is what makes us the most anxious. With the best of intentions, I have seen leaders speculate and reach for answers, when in fact, they are unintentionally creating more anxiety by guessing. Sticking to facts in your response is what can help people feel the most settled – “I don’t know all the details about our re-organization, but I do know everyone will keep the same job titles and wages.”
Finally, Mary suggests that welcoming questions is critical to building more trust and dialogue. I once worked for someone who would record any questions she couldn’t answer, and would always promptly circle back with answers and updates when she had them. It made us feel heard and that our questions were valuable.
The recent tragedies of the past several weeks have forced us to ask, “How do we respond?” I’m new to being a parent, and obviously my 7 month-old isn’t asking penetrating questions just yet. But whether in response to children or adults, I can see that respecting feelings and taking questions and concerns seriously is what can be most helpful. Hopefully, if we learn how to discuss difficult topics, we can promote understanding which will transcend tragedy.