When you don't know the right words to say in a crisis

Right now my organization is going through a financial crisis that is testing the mettle of every leader. The problem is a simple one really, there’s not enough money to support all the resources we have acquired over the past several years. I think we all knew this day of reckoning would probably arrive—we just hoped, that by some miracle, it never would. The people responsible for our situation have moved on. Truthfully, they probably did the best they could, given difficult circumstances, but chickens come home to roost and here we are now faced with making some difficult decisions.

It’s interesting to listen and watch how our leadership is responding to this crisis. Some are out front, others are hiding behind their underlings—expecting them to deliver the bad news, some are blaming, and others are acting little better than cheerleaders at a lopsided ballgame. Behind it all seems to be a belief that the organization can and should control what people say and think by limiting what is said to them and placing a positive spin on all messages delivered. What isn’t happening is transparency, openness and vulnerability–and this, in my opinion, breeds suspicion and distrust.

At a recent working lunch I heard phrases like, “We’ll all get through this,” “Never waste a good recession,” “This will allow us to do things we have always needed to do but never got around to doing,” “Things will be better after we do this,” “Necessity is the mother of invention,” and my all time favorite, “This is probably a blessing in disguise.” Each time I hear one of these platitudes I go a little more insane. In a crisis, there is nothing more hollow than a platitude.

Though well-meaning, platitudes disconnect us from the people who hear them.  I know why we say these things and I have been as guilty as the next! It’s our way of shielding ourselves—and those about us—from the profound anxiety, fear, despair, and negativity we feel within. Though it may be true that we should not inappropriately express negativity–it is also true that we should not use canned phrases about hope and courage.  The notion that we must hide painful feelings with an empty homily is a false dichotomy. We have other options. Brene Brown says that vulnerability is our most accurate measure of courage.  In a crisis, courage is more than a willingness to cut people and budgets–it’s the courage to be open, honest and vulnerable to those you lead.

At that same lunch mentioned above, towards the very end—after all the trite expressions had been exhausted—one of my friends leaned forward and with both hands on the side of his head said, “Guys, I really don’t know what to say… this is a perfectly awful situation and I wish I knew what to do.” And right there and then, in only a few seconds, everything changed. The meeting went from being an impersonal and dispassionate diatribe to an honest, courageous, and vulnerable conversation. And that’s the key— Vulnerability and Honesty! The moment we stop spouting company lines and pre-recorded messages, we make important connections to those about us.

What’s the right thing to say in a crisis? Avoid platitudes, avoid inappropriate expressions of negativity–but allow yourself to be vulnerable and honest. Let people know when you don’t have the right words to ease their suffering. Acknowledge that you’re suffering too and be honest when you don’t have the answer.