Communicating When the Chips are Down

What to do in the heat of the moment (when you have no idea what to do)

Leading in uncertain times calls for different leadership skills. Now is not the time to be large and in charge. Now is the time to be thoughtful, transparent, and in the moment.

When the chips are down and stakes are high, consider the skills below. Many thanks to the dozens of colleagues who contributed to this list of leadership moves.

1. Communicate most in uncertain times.

In the absence of information, rumors abound.

  • Over-communicate: We need to hear new information four times before it starts to sink in.
  • Communicate more, not less, in crisis. Even if you have nothing new to say, reinforce previous messages.
  • Meetings and messages can be short, but stay in touch.
  • Communicate what you know and admit what you don’t know; be transparent.
  • Ask for feedback/questions. Answer as quickly as you can.

2. Downsize expectations from the start.

In a crisis, hopes and anxiety are high and everyone wants answers.

  • Let people know from the start that you will share what you know but that some questions can’t be answered because we are in a constant state of change. Change is likely to be with us for a while.
  • Ask people to hold their questions; they may hear the answer in the presentation.
  • Let everyone know that, given the current COVID situation, you can’t make everyone happy. You will do your best to hear everyone, and then do the right thing to effect the greatest good.
  • And finally, due to changing circumstances, our responses may change. We will make the best decisions we can with the amount of information we have.

3. Reach out.

People feel better and are more understanding when they are included in the decision-making process.

  • Engage students, staff, and community.
  • Work hard to hear every voice and every perspective, and share what you have heard.
  • Hold more frequent and shorter management meetings. Share small wins.
  • Schedule open, optional meetings; take text questions; use chat to get group feedback.

4. Be a humble learner, not the in-charge know-it-all.

Messengers often do take bullets. And in a crisis, things do change.

  • Be present, participate, facilitate if need be, but avoid being the sole answer-giver.
  • Admit what you know and don’t know. Be transparent and honest.
  • If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.
  • Ask for and give grace. Be vulnerable in sharing (within reason) your own challenges and concerns. Remind everyone to be kind to each other. Show you care. Be empathetic.
  • Remain calm and thoughtful; people mirror what they see/feel.
  • Always respect others. In tense moments we have thirty seconds to demonstrate respect and a sense that we are on the same side. Use “both/and” responses, not “either/or.”

5. Acknowledge emotions.

Name the emotion. Address the fear.

  • Don’t ignore or skip over the emotion. Let people know it is okay to feel what they are feeling.
  • Name the emotions. Address them if you can. Don’t dismiss them.
  • Share empathy, Eg: I can tell this hard for you. I hear that…
  • Show that you care. At the very least, hear the concerns.
  • Assure people (within reason) that you hear the concerns and are working to address them.

6. Lead with integrity.

Honesty is critical.

  • Don’t be afraid to show people if you don’t know something. Use the opportunity to model being a life-long learner.
  • Under-promise and over-deliver.
  • Do what you said you would do.
  • Speak truth, even when it is hard truth to hear.

7. Anchor conversations in the big WHY.

In every communication think PPP: People, Purpose, Plan.

  • Stay aligned with core values, mission, and vision.
  • Keep the main thing the main thing: Be student-centered. Fight for every student.
  • Acknowledge that safety is critical. Communicate how much you appreciate the people and the staff.
  • Grow collaboration and ownership: We’ll get through this together.
  • Climb the ladder of inference to find common values.
  • Make meaning. Rally people around core values: students, equity, safety, learning.

8. Listen, learn, ask questions.

  • Listen first. Listen actively. Listen to understand, to see different perspectives.
  • Listen to identify the different audiences, their major concerns, and emotional barriers.
  • Never be afraid to say, That is a great question. Let’s find out.
  • Ask, What else do we need to know? Make a list of what you don’t know and make a plan to find out.
  • Ask, What does support look like to you? Ask what the group can contribute.

9. Close the loop.

Let people know:

  • What options you have been considering
  • What you have been hearing from stakeholders
  • How you are using that input
  • How your decisions have been improved by stakeholders

10. Solve the right problem.

  • Get everyone in the room, call the meeting, be the facilitator.
  • Seek out diverse perspectives; the best ideas often emerge from mixed groups.
  • Unpack the real issues with questions like these from Brené Brown (Dare to Lead): Tell me more … I’m wondering … Help me understand … Walk me through … We seem dug in, tell me your passion around this … I am working from these assumptions, what about you … What problem are we trying to solve?
  • Get the team together, listen, define the problem together, then problem-solve.

11. Focus: Find something concrete that everyone can do.

We all feel better when we feel that one small part of our world is under our control.

  • Create “Do now/Do later” lists.
  • Reduce anxiety. Take something off the plate if you can.
  • Ask, What can we stop doing right now to focus on what matters most?
  • Define the next action steps.
  • Narrow the work into a very, very short focused list; break work into small pieces.

12. Adopt a growth mindset. Create belonging and safety.

  • Meet often and regularly, with routine check-ins.
  • Create belonging. Remind your team, Together we will find a way through this.
  • Celebrate small wins, progress.

13. Ask for help.

  • Delegate operational details so you can remain focused on the big picture and big WHY.
  • Retain final decision-making but share the load, the responsibility, and the opportunity.
  • Enlist principals and ask them how to make plans better, how to support them.
  • Identify the potential “chief worrier” for the issue/item discussed.
  • Ask process observers to help you read audience needs and responses.

And when all eyes are focused on you, these responses might be golden:

  1. I can tell this issue is really important for you. We obviously are not ready to decide yet. Can we go round one more time with your questions/concerns and then let us take another stab at this?
  2. Wow, there is a lot here. We did a lot of homework for this meeting, but we aren’t there yet. Can we schedule a work session on this topic and get back to you?

Sources: See also other blogs related to this topic.

Many thanks to: WSLA Colleagues; SPU Colleagues; Clover Park Colleagues; Nate Levenson: DMG; John Kotter: Thrive v. Survive; Brené Brown: Dare to Lead; Brain Research; Martin Seligman: Learned Optimism; Lenny Marcus: You’re It!

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Larry Nyland – Leadership Coach and Consultant.
Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

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