How to diffuse conflicts with empathy during Covid-19

WomanUp lead consultant Rose Cartolari explains how to diffuse conflicts through empathy, communications and support.

Empathy is considered to be an essential quality to be an effective leader. When challenged or confronted about an issue, our default behaviour is to be defensive and present factual counter arguments. 

But doing this doesn’t give us the chance to really connect as humans and understand, at an emotional level, what is being said to us and why.

“A crisis brings out the best and the worst in people. Your skill in being able to empathise, communicate with and support those around you will say a lot about you and your abilities as a leader”

Given the unprecedented level of stress we’ve all been under with Covid-19, it’s important to recognise and practise the type of communications techniques that are useful to help diffuse potential conflicts in both our personal and professional lives.

I’m writing this from my home in Monza in northern Milan in the Lombardy region in Italy, which has been the epicentre of the Covid-19 virus in Italy. My last overseas trip was in mid-February when I travelled to Dublin for meetings with the founders of WomanUp, who are behind this series of articles.

Little did I realise what would face me on my return and how Covid-19 would have such devastating effects on my community, as well as my adopted country, and indeed across the world. It is a crisis like no other and is testing the resolve of everyone.

Strategies and behavioural techniques

Infographic showing conflict and stress during Covid-19.

As a leadership coach with an extensive toolbox of strategies and behavioural techniques at my disposal I’ve had my struggles in recent weeks about practising what I preach. 

Spontaneously, I’ve had a few choice words to say when I hear about people who continue to ignore public health advice on social distancing or the lockdown or when I hear interviews with supposed leaders who have chosen to ignore the science.

I know the importance of mental resilience, of balanced and “zoomed out” thinking but I’d be the first to say that, at times, I’ve got overwhelmed and I haven’t remembered to dip into my toolbox. 

What has pulled me back on track is the daily habit of taking time to reflect on who I want to be in the world and what that would look like.

The other great help has been connecting with my networks of family, friends and contacts. They have been truly remarkable, putting their arms around me virtually and giving me perspectives to help shine a dim light of positivity through unprecedented uncertainty.

Most of us are trying try to put structures in place that create a sense of normality in both our personal and professional lives. But the “new normal” means being cooped up in our homes, sometimes with children who aren’t at school, while trying to work and deal all too often with stressed customers, colleagues and contacts.

Empathy and communications

Dark haired woman in white top.

Rose Cartolari

Tensions can and will run high both at home and at work – an outburst by a bored teenager, an angry email from a customer or a sharp exchange on a call with a colleague. 

Now, more than ever, our instinct is to defend ourselves, to justify our actions or to turn up the volume and rant. Those responses will make situations worse, not better, and will fuel your own stress levels

When you feel those type of responses coming on, remember to take a few minutes to breathe and centre yourself. Who do you want to be in this situation? How would your values or your brand ask you to behave? 

This is about displaying empathy,  focusing on connecting with the person in front of you, with what lies behind the conversation or outburst and what the individual might feeling.

So first, pause. Take a deep breath. Truly listen to what is being said. Don’t write that speedy email or rush into giving your response on a call or to the family member. Connect with the feelings (yours and theirs) before you redirect. 

Say something like “Wow, how (frustrated/annoyed/fill-in-the blank) you must be feeling.” By first genuinely recognising and connecting with what the individual is feeling, you calm him/her down. Only then will they be more receptive to the more logical factual arguments you might then have. 

A crisis brings out the best and the worst in people. Your skill in being able to empathise, communicate with and support those around you will say a lot about you and your abilities as a leader.

Rose Cartolari is a leadership consultant and executive coach with a global client base. She is a member of the Forbes Coaches Council, an invitation-only community of leadership, executive and career coaches, and writes for Rose is a lead consultant with WomanUp, which aims to strengthen the female leadership pipeline through a programme which gives mid-career females the insights, skills and confidence to progress to leadership roles. Over 40 women in Bank of Ireland Group have participated in the programme to date. For more details on the programme, visit the WomanUp website