Communicating During Stressful Times: Tips from a Forensic Interviewer

There is no escaping the fact that HR often becomes the organizational epicenter during times of crisis.  The minute things start to go wrong, everyone runs to HR. Executives turn to HR for advice, critical information, to vent, and to ask HR to deliver uncomfortable messages that they don’t want to.  Employees turn to HR for guidance, advice, to share their fears and to voice their concerns when they feel they’ve been treated unfairly.  Getting caught in the middle of this uncertainty tornado only increases the personal stress levels of HR professionals.

In times of stress and uncertainty, we lean on our core values for guidance.  For Certified Forensic Interviewers (CFI’s), this often starts with patiently listening to and cautiously communicating with organizational leaders that have previously jeopardized investigations. After these initial conversations, CFI’s must transition to conducting moral, legal, and ethical investigative interviews that allow their subjects to maintain their self-images while telling the truth. HR leaders get caught in the middle as well.  As stress levels rise, their executive counterparts expect them to protect the organization while employees simultaneously expect HR leaders to protect the workforce.  Below are a series of tips to assist HR leaders with their communications to both groups of stakeholders.

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Tips for communicating with executives

  • Listen between the lines: HR executives have a unique vantage point as they participate in strategy sessions where executives from across the organization make recommendations based on individual perspectives and priorities.  As these executives take and defend positions, the words they speak are not as important as the motivations behind them.  HR executives who identify these motivations can use them to align seemingly separate ideas to create solutions the rest of the leadership team couldn’t see.
  • Use core values as anchors: People often feel personally attacked when someone challenges their ideas because they have aligned their ideas with their self-images. Their defensive reactions can destroy any opportunity to collaborate on better solutions. A great way to respond when one of your counterparts shares an idea that may create exposure for the organization is to frame your counter idea around the organization’s core values.  The fact that everyone in the room has already bought into these values limits the opportunity for people to feel personally attacked, makes it difficult for you to argue your point without contradicting their commitment, and it creates a shared platform to collaborate on new solutions.
  • Connect people to the numbers: When people are forced to respond to stress, they often rely on what they are already comfortable with. For many operationally focused executives, this means focusing on where they can reduce expenses while continuing to drive revenue. Focusing on numbers makes it easy to lose sight of the people involved. HR leaders are perfectly positioned to highlight the people, at all levels of the organization, with the ability to lead the organization out of crisis and towards a better future. Adding names and faces to the numbers brings the human element to the conversation and adds a necessary layer of depth to the decision making process.
  • Avoid saying you: As tensions rise, executives become more defensive of their needs, their roles, their ideas, and their perceived control over the situation. These defensive responses often unexpectedly increase when they are faced with responses such as: “So what you’re saying is…”, “So your thought process is…”, “What you mean is…”, or even “I understand how you feel…”.  HR executives can significantly defuse the situation by leveraging alternative responses that don’t include the word you such as: “What it appears we are hearing is…”, “It sounds like the focus we should have is…”, “The first problem in line for a solution is…”, or “In this situation, it is easy for people to feel…”.  Each of these alternatives focuses on the issue, not the person, and allows everyone in the room to contribute to the conversation without feeling any additional vulnerability.
  • Don’t create unnecessary problems: Any crisis presents enough problems to solve.  Creating more problems isn’t typically beneficial.  It is important to avoid sharing unnecessary information, asking unnecessary questions, or posing provocative hypothetical questions just to get a reaction from your counterparts. Once the main goals have been established, every step should be directed towards achieving those goals. It is also important to discourage other executives from derailing the conversation without insulting their self-image.  One great technique is to immediately acknowledge that the issue is important to the person who broached it, explain to them you want to be sure you have enough time to explore it fully and give them a specific time you will follow up with them. This allows them to feel heard, respected, and confident they will be able to share their concerns in full.

Tips for communicating with employees

  • Connect the message back to core values: There is no easy button for delivering difficult messages to employees. A great technique for minimizing resistance is to link decisions back to the organization’s core values.  It can be easy for employees to complain about unpopular decisions.  It is harder for them to voice displeasure about the organization’s core values.  The more employees understand how these shared values assisted in arriving at a decision, or how they are reflected in the decision, the easier it will be for them to accept it – even if they don’t love it.
  • Frame around employee concerns: People are often inclined to look out for their personal priorities. People also react to what they hear first.  Messages that start with executives talking about themselves, their issues, or the impact the forthcoming message will have on the organization can drive employees to believe that the executive doesn’t care about them.  This perspective then causes these employees to listen to the rest of the message for information that confirms their suspicions.  Messages that begin by acknowledging, addressing, and demonstrating an understanding of common employee concerns typically generate the opposite reaction.  This structure is more likely to cause employees to feel that executives do care about them, and listen to confirm this assumption, even in the face of disappointing
  • Don’t forget the future: During times of uncertainty, people feel the need to hold onto what gives them comfort, and they become hyper-focused on trying to solve the riddle of the unknown. It is easy for everyone to get caught up in how bad things are currently, and how bad things may become.  It is important for leaders to create opportunities to talk about the positive things the future may hold.  This may include opportunities they anticipate having, how the company is prepared to adapt, what process the company is using to prepare for the future, and who is driving that process.  You may not know how far you are from the end of the tunnel, but that doesn’t mean you can’t shine a light towards it.
  • Don’t make it about you: During times of stress, it is easy for people to feel that no one else can understand how bad their situation is. Even a small crisis can ignite the fuse on the flammable ingroup/outgroup dynamic between managers and employees.  Managers often accidentally stoke the flame when they take credit for others’ work, brag about what they’ve done, dwell on the sacrifices they are making, or focus on how tough a situation is for them.  Leading through difficult and uncertain times requires leaders to forsake focusing on themselves and dedicate themselves to demonstrating empathy and understanding towards their workforce.
  • If you’re ok, they’re ok: Parents know that how they react when their child falls will directly impact how upset their child becomes.  In many ways, HR leaders are perceived as a parental presence within organizations.  Employees know that HR leaders are often responsible for providing guidance and filtering messages from other executives.  By default, employees are going to look to HR leaders for insight, advice, and honesty during times of heightened stress.  It is critical that HR leaders filter out any ambiguity and organizational turmoil while providing a calm and guiding presence for their workforce.  The more composed the HR team remains, the more they can expect their workforce to follow their lead.

It is helpful for HR professionals and Certified Forensic Interviewers to both remember – it is supposed to be screwed up.  They both signed up to help people navigate stressful situations with half of the tools they need.  Once they embrace this perspective, they can focus on maintaining a composed, solutions-focused approach, that allows them to successfully guide all of their stakeholders to calmer waters.

Michael Reddington is a certified forensic interviewer and the President of InQuasive, Inc., a company that integrates the key components of effective non-confrontational interview techniques with current business research for executives. Using his background in forensics, and his understanding of human behavior through interrogation, Reddington teaches businesses to use the truth to their advantage.

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