As I write this, our families and communities are missing loved ones who won’t come back. Our friends and neighbors are afraid and angry. Our colleagues are vanishing from our workplaces because the economy can’t keep us together, and all of us are grappling with the sudden plunge into uncertainty. It hurts, it feels relentless, it seems bottomless.
Normally, in difficult times, our instinct is to reach out, literally. Human touch and physical expression—a hug, a hand on a shoulder, a quiet look of concern, sitting next to someone and not saying anything—are powerful ways to show people we’re here for them. But what do we do when all that’s left is our voice?
As a writing teacher and brand communication consultant, I’m constantly reminding people: Show, don’t tell. And in this case, even with limits on physical proximity—enforced by local policy or implemented by geography—the same remains true. Whether we’re speaking for brands, for teams, or for ourselves, we need to understand the tools we have to create communication that shows up for people.
Admit what you don’t know
To be fully present with people in their suffering means knowing we can never really know what they feel. We may get close, but as long as we’re only indirectly impacted, we’ll always speak as outsiders. If we’re being honest, the complexity of others’ difficult situations and emotions is something we can’t pretend to grasp.
Brands and leaders whose audiences comprise large numbers of disparate experiences need first to release the typical “everything is under control” approach and create space for the unknown and undefined. Even something as seemingly simple as admitting that our personal opinions are changing (as Zillow CEO Rich Barton did in his announcement of their new work-from-home policy) lets our audience know we realize how complex the matter is.
Don’t fall for throwaway statements
Even in a “words cannot express” kind of world, communicating with compassion means resisting the temptation to lean on clichés. You know the ones, because you hear them often: “our hearts go out,” anything to do with “thoughts and prayers.” I would update the list with now-popular preamble, “In these unprecedented times.”
We don’t all have to become poets, we just have to pay close attention. Although words fail us (which Peloton confesses outright in a simple, powerful statement), struggling to search for the ones that get us even an inch closer to this unique moment will honor our audience’s experiences and show we’re thinking about them. Using specific, unique details in your communication is the verbal equivalent of looking your audience directly in the eyes.
Show up sooner and more often
The cadence of our communication is another key to showing our compassion. Choose promptness over perfection when crafting your initial outreach. Show up regularly and reliably in appropriate channels. And remind your audience your door remains wide open.
It can be as simple as issuing a daily email at the end of the day or week to your team. Or it can be a bigger gesture like setting up a dedicated microsite or social media campaign that’s updated continually with your brand’s brief thoughts, observations, and tributes to the people you feel compassion for. Be wary of demanding too much of your audience’s attention, but don’t be afraid of overcommunicating in a way that asks nothing of the listener. When it comes to compassion, there is no “final” word.
Be very careful with humor
There’s a place and time for that. But unless you’re really confident in your comedy chops (i.e. people consistently tell you you’re really funny and mean it), a joking tone is better left to those more advanced practitioners who can walk that razor-thin edge of what makes something both truly humorous and devastatingly human. Even the notoriously sharp-witted social media team at Wendy’s suspended their usual banter in favor of a more heartfelt message.
Too often, we’re all tempted to use humor as a kind of mask we slip on suddenly in self-defense, when what compassion really calls for is vulnerability. In short, don’t try to “lighten the mood” when you’re responsible for addressing a difficult subject. Not before, during, or after. Be okay to rest in the solemnity, so your audience can feel okay to rest in it too.
Declare their needs and your actions
Compassion—more than sympathy, more than empathy—compels us to help people. We witness their pain, and we’re moved to act, even in some small way. Communicating with compassion, then, means we let people know how we are stepping out from behind our keyboards and podiums to pursue some kind of change.
Airbnb CEO Brain Chesky committed to extra measures of support for employees affected by the layoffs. Even as his note already gets many of the cues of compassion right, he further recognizes that telling people he feels compassion for them will never ring true without showing how this compassion has moved him to act.
Netflix, in a less direct but equally effective address, has also brought compassion to their communication by offering to cancel subscriptions for inactive users. Rather than put the burden of articulating their own needs onto users, Netflix’s offer shows they recognize the difficult circumstances—of being out of work, of worrying about unnecessary spending, of not having the time or mental space to take on the potentially daunting task of calling customer service to cancel—and they’re willing to make small, meaningful changes on their users’ behalf.
Because even when all that’s left is our voice, we can still make our compassion felt.
Sarah Grieb is a Brand Communication Associate Director on our West Coast team