Communicating Effectively in a Crisis

by Jeremy Solomons, Co-Chair, IAC Global Committee; President/Owner, JSA Consulting (Rwanda)

(This is an edited version of the third in a series of “Leading in a Crisis” that was printed in the New Times newspaper of Rwanda.)

As we saw in my previous blog on “Suddenly Dispersed Teams,” one of the main ways of building and sustaining productive remote working relationships now is through clear, concise, compassionate and consistent communication.

“Communication, communication, communication … over communication,” says Amina Bisamaza, director of Operations at the Wellspring Foundation.

The place to start is with virtual communication systems, processes, routines and protocols.

Many global organizations use written communication and collaboration tools, such as Slack, Asana and Atlassian but WhatsApp tends to be used most commonly in Rwanda.

Juvens Asifiwe, public relations officer of Afflatus Africa, says: “I have two different accounts on WhatsApp: one is for group leaders and the other is for all the other leaders and teammates.”

“Every Monday, I will give tasks to the team leaders. I make sure they understand the tasks and then they deliver it to the teammates. These tasks will have to be reported on at the end of the week on Friday,” he continues.

WhatsApp is  fine for brief daily check-ins and operational or logistical arrangements but email should still be used for sharing more detailed information, ideas and documentation. Oral communication is also very important, particularly for teams that usually work in the same space.

For team phone calls, leaders are now making sure to co-create and share detailed but flexible agendas before each meeting (and brief minutes and to-do items right afterwards). The agendas don’t just focus on the work at hand. They are also allowing time for everyone to briefly check in at the beginning and then check out at the end.

One leader at an international development organization in Kigali has also started hosting virtual coffee meetings every morning. “This helps us support each other and try to deal with the anxiety and frustration of the current situation,” she says. “But we don’t just talk about Coronavirus.”

Global communication has also gone more visual in its meetings, using such platforms as: Zoom, GoToMeeting and Skype. Unfortunately, this is more challenging  in Rwanda because of access, equipment, cost and bandwidth issues at home. If videoconferencing is possible, not everyone needs to be on camera all the time.

As on a formal phone call, it’s nice if each person can unmute both their microphones and webcams to be heard and seen during the initial check-ins and final check-outs. But this does mean that the top half of you does have to look decent and presentable, which may not be a bad thing after three days of working in pajamas.

But just as the sounds of children screaming or televisions blaring can be distracting on a phone call, so can the sight of your colleagues looking away or bored be distracting on a video call.

“Ah but how can I be sure that they are paying full attention and not multitasking?” you might ask. Very simple: if only the right people are on the call, only the right things are being discussed and the call is being facilitated in the right way, people will remain fully engaged throughout the whole meeting. And sometimes the moderator may need to say: “Richard, we haven’t heard from you for a while.”

Whether you are communicating by text, WhatsApp, email, phone or video, the key to success is what we call “active listening.”

And with totally virtual communication, the Chinese character “Ting” ­–or “to listen” -–seems an appropriate way to re-define “active listening”.

Like many Chinese characters, there are many different parts of “Ting”

Chinese Character Ting
  1. Starting at the bottom left corner of the graphic above, we must treat the other person as a “king” (or queen).
  2. Going clockwise, we must listen with our “ears”, as we normally do.
  3. We must then listen with our “mind” to work out what is really being said and maybe what is not being said.
  4. We must also, if on video, listen with our “eyes” to observe facial expressions and body language.
  5. We must be totally “focused” on the other person (and not on what we want to say next).
  6. And lastly, we must listen with our “hearts”, which is especially important at this emotional time.

And if we can do all of the above, then– in the words of Lobsang Tenzin, the former prime minister of Tibet– our “communication will bring understanding and understanding will cause harmonious mutual relationships which can establish peace and stability.”

We encourage you to comment in the green Reply box below. You can also email Jeremy directly at: jeremy@jeremysolomons.com

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