In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve been asked to facilitate numerous web sessions about staying positive. What seems to surprise participants is how much lighter and clearer they feel at the end of a session that began with discussion about the scary rollercoaster ride they feel like they’re on. Often they feel better because the session helped them address their negative thoughts and emotions, which empowered them to feel more positive afterwards.
As a classic overachiever, my tendency — shared by many of the professionals I coach — is to skip over difficult and potentially negative thoughts and emotions and get right to action. But I’ve learned an important lesson from working in high-pressure environments and coaching busy professionals who are faced with constant problems and competing demands: unless we face our difficult thoughts and emotions, they will block us from being focused and making our best decisions.
Take the real-life example of “John,” a busy professional I met earlier this week. In addition to his practice, John is responsible for a few teams across two provinces. His people are highly skilled and work well independently, so he hasn’t seen the need to get together with them for updates more than a few times each year. When John learned that I was giving sessions on staying positive during uncertain times, he told me that he didn’t know if his company would need to lay anyone off, and he didn’t want to scare anyone by raising the issue of uncertainty. John said that he was on top of things and had been sending regular email updates to keep team members focused on regulatory changes and keeping the business running as best they could.
When I asked what John had been hearing from his team, he told me that a couple people asked him about job security, and one suggested that he hold a virtual team meeting to answer questions. John’s response to the suggestion was that he really didn’t have any more information than what they already had, so it would be best to wait. When I asked John what he sensed may have prompted this person to suggest a team meeting, he was silent. He eventually responded, “She’s probably worried” in a quiet, contemplative voice.
As our conversation continued, it became clear that John’s worry about inviting people to ask tough questions was holding him back from connecting with his teams. He feared that he would not have the answers they wanted, and his worst-case scenario was that they would lose respect for him.
John accepted my offer to share key points from my recent web sessions with him that he might apply to his interactions with his teams in order to connect with them with more empathy and compassion.
- Be curious and kind. Ask open-ended, exploratory questions.
- Listen to learn and understand what is on people’s minds.
- Accept your own difficult and potentially negative thoughts and emotions, and acknowledge and confirm the thoughts and emotions you hear from others, all without judgement.
- Focus on the present. You can’t predict the future, but you can be honest about what you do or do not know, and you can share your hope.
- Trust that people are capable of moving past theirs fears. Keep in mind that different people move and adjust at different paces, so some may need more of your support, guidance, and reassurance over a longer period.
- Identify what you can control such as your core essential values and your own actions. Ask yourself how you want to show up and be seen during these uncertain times relative to those things you can control and act accordingly.
By the end of our conversation, John felt ready to hold a virtual meeting with his teams. His intention was to be open and understanding. His objective was to “take a pulse check” and get a clearer sense of what was on people’s minds. If anyone were to ask a question that he couldn’t answer, he would respond that he doesn’t know at this time and commit to following up with individuals by phone after the virtual meeting.
Now more than ever, to stay positive people need to be seen, heard, and understood. Although sitting with difficult and potentially negative thoughts and emotions and not having all the answers can feel uncomfortable, doing so can provide opportunities to grow and to learn just how capable and strong you can be.
-Karmen Masson, CEC, LL.B.