Good leaders communicate in season and out. The right word can inspire and motivate. More importantly, the right word can connect people in times of grief and loss, though many leaders find words of comfort the most difficult to express.
Wilfred Bockelman offers help for us all in his short book entitled “Finding the Right Words: Offering Care and Comfort When You Don’t Know What to Say.”
He presents four principles to guide us through meaningful leadership care-giving.
First, even when you don’t know what to say, go to the person who has had the tragedy. In other words, presence matters. Of course, some people may want to be left alone. Bockelman says it’s better to go and say, “I don’t know what to say,” than not to go because you fear saying the wrong thing. Not knowing what to say actually means you are feeling the pain of the persons loss at a deep level. Even if a person wants to be left alone, letting them know you are feeling their pain helps to bridge a connection.
Second, make it as easy as possible for the person(s) suffering the loss to say whatever they want to say. In other words, don’t over talk to fill in the silent spaces. Listen with your head and with your heart for things said and unsaid. We call this making space for another’s grief. This skill requires a leader to be fully present.
Third, don’t promise anything you can’t deliver or fulfill. This may sound self-explanatory. Bockelman says be specific when offering help. Such as, “I know you have a lot on your mind. Would you like me to take the laundry home and do it for you?” Another phrase might be: “Are there any errands I can run for you, like getting groceries or taking the kids to soccer practice?”
Last, be prepared to follow through after the shock of the tragedy fades. Immediate support is usually a first thought for most care-givers. However, making a commitment for six months or a year out to provide help shows the leader’s extra care for a person in pain.
Bockelman provides a useful guide for communication during painful losses. A leader does not need to be a “natural” during times of crisis. They only need to communicate clearly that one person’s loss is worth the leader’s best effort in communicating care.
Take a focused moment to prepare yourself to engage the losses your followers are facing. The Apostle Paul admonished leaders to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. How are you doing with this leadership principle?
Dennis Nichols is Lead Faculty for the Master of Arts in Leadership at William Jessup University