In HR, you likely often face a difficult situation when you just don’t know what to say. What do you do then?
Perhaps a tragedy struck. Bad news needs to be shared. Uncomfortable questions must be answered.
HR leaders can’t easily prepare for difficult and delicate situations. What’s more, you often have to help front-line managers handle the times when it seems there’s nothing right to say.
Still, when these things happen, employees look to you for the right words and direction.
It matters to your overall business, too. The way companies and their leaders respond to crisis has a significant and lasting impact on employee sentiment and perceptions, according to research from BetterUp. What’s more, employees are more satisfied, feel a higher sense of belonging and are happier at organizations that handle and speak to difficult situations.
So you want to know what to say when it feels like there’s nothing right to say. Here’s help from communication expert Eric Torrence:
When people don’t know what to say, they often pull back, feeling silence is safer than potentially saying something awkward. But leaders don’t want to run from the issue.
Instead, recognize it.
Here’s the good part: You don’t have to be quick with the right words. Any words that show you see and understand the situation is difficult will help. Torrence recommends these:
- This is upsetting
- This will be difficult, or
- I want to help.
Lean on others’ words
Even more good news here: You don’t have to come up with the right words in all delicate situations. You can rely on people who’ve had better words in worse circumstances.
For instance, former President Barack Obama he tweeted a quote from Nelson Mandela in the wake of riots in Charlottesville. In part:
No one is born hating another person … People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love.
It was one of the most retweeted quotes of all time.
Know that you can repeat something a colleague, friend or known leader said in a similar situation to ease the immediate pain. You might want to curate a list of go-to comforting quotes and thoughts to rely on in a clinch.
While a crisis might be a good time to use another person’s inspiring words, it’s not a time for clichés.
Saying something like, “Time and patience heals all wounds” is pretty much the equivalent of saying, “Suck it up and move on” (which you surely don’t mean).
Same goes for comparisons. Avoid comparing a current painful situation to something you’ve been through or the company has experienced prior.
Comparisons – like clichés – don’t comfort people and can’t fix the problem.
When you bring up something that happened and try to link it to what is happening, you often minimize the feelings of the people impacted by the difficult situation.
Once you’ve said something, the people affected by the difficult situation will likely talk.
Listen, of course. Then use your listening as a way to say more during the difficult conversation.
Reflect on what you’ve heard, recognizing the feelings people have shared. Torrence gives these examples:
- I can understand why you’re worried about how this will affect the future.
- You have every right to be upset. This certainly looks like an uphill battle for some time.
Resist the natural leadership urge to start finding solutions – and thus, avoid more uncomfortable conversation.
The situation is likely difficult because there aren’t any easy solutions.
Allow time for everyone to absorb what’s happened and say what’s not easy to say before you move toward a resolution.