Navigating Tragedy: Empowering Your Team with 3 Vital Coping Tools

Foster a healing workplace by making space to acknowledge the impact of outside events.

It’s getting harder and harder to maintain the illusion that we’re not all deeply human. The beloved Parisian icon Notre Dame burned on Monday and news traveled the world instantly. Sitting in a team meeting, my whole company paused to watch the videos coming in.

Those of us who had been there shared our stories. It’s not the first time we’ve stopped our discussion to bear witness to events happening outside our purview, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

I know that many leaders don’t take this pause. Not for Notre Dame, and certainly not for any of the individual tragedies team members may be facing.

This all-business mentality is an old-fashioned mistake. 

In days past, it was possible to go to work in the morning and hear nothing about events outside until we saw the evening news. The all-business format of a traditional business meeting was created in this time when work and life stayed more neatly in separate lanes.

The idea that each person can truly separate their work and personal life, as if they’re actually entirely unrelated people inhabiting the same body, was always false. It was never true, but it used to be easier to pretend. 

Now, when your team shows up to your regular team meetings, they may arrive reeling from fresh news. Recently, a friend told me about a meeting she rushed into after just hearing some terrible news about her mother. After the meeting, her boss pulled her aside and said “We can all see when you’re upset and it’s dragging the group down. Next time, I need you to smile and get in the game.” 

That’s cruel and incredibly counterproductive. In an era where employee disengagement, loneliness, and anxiety are on the rise, leaders who dismiss the experiences of team members make these problems worse and hurt their team’s performance.

A modern leader works in a fully connected world with integrated humans, and modern team meeting practices acknowledge this reality. You should use these three practices to acknowledge our shared humanity and build stronger, more engaged teams:

1. Clearing.

At the beginning of the meeting, each person takes a few minutes to share anything that they’re dealing with that could prevent them from focusing on the discussion at hand. People may share personal or work-related news–both good and bad–and everyone gets a turn.

The rest of the team isn’t supposed to do anything in particular with what they hear. Instead, when a team member is clearing, everyone else simply listens.

2. Listening. Really listening.

One of the most healing and respectful acts we can take for the welfare of our team is to listen when they speak. Put down the phones and give each other your silent attention. For the one or two minutes each person spends speaking, the rest of the team remains silent. Perhaps they exchange a nod here or there and a smile or two, but no words. 

The person sharing may pause at times as they work through their thoughts. Resist the urge to jump in, holding that space and reserving the opportunity for that person to be heard all the way through. When each person indicates they’re done, there’s no need to comment or react to what they’ve said. Simply thank them for sharing, and move to the next person. 

Listening without simultaneously thinking about what you’re going to say next takes practice. Organizations that teach this practice and use it in team meetings benefit from a more engaged, balanced, and loyal workforce.

3. Making meetings optional. 

Finally, when the outside world makes productive work untenable, acknowledge this and make it acceptable for people to excuse themselves from the meeting. I advocate adopting meetings as optional as a blanket policy for many reasons, most of which have to do with keeping meetings productive and efficient.

I know some leaders will dismiss this suggestion–and all the other ones I’ve listed–as too fluffy for their business. That’s a mistake.

As a business leader, I understand where my friend’s boss was coming from when she commanded her to smile. Someone in obvious distress destroys what would otherwise be a productive meeting for the rest of the team. I also know that very few of my employees are trained actors, which makes expecting people to “put on a happy face” a lousy strategy.

Instead, making space to acknowledge what’s going on in our lives, to be heard, and sometimes to bow out, means we don’t have to spend extra energy trying to pretend we’re separate unrelated people. We get to show up as our full selves, support each other when our cathedrals burn, and bring all our gifts to the work at hand.

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