How to avoid reacting as if everyone’s like you

by | Apr 20, 2020 | Blog | 0 comments

Hands down (hopefully washed hands), the covid-19 pandemic is the biggest paradox we’re facing in this new decade so far. And it’s a paradox on so many levels. Consider just these three:

One, the more we learn about the virus, the more uncertainty we seem to face about the impact of the virus on us personally, professionally, and societally.

Two, social distancing, including sheltering-in-place, is slowing the spread of the disease yet it’s contributing to its own set of ills, such as a global recession, more political polarization, and individual anxiety, even depression.

Three, all of us around the globe are experiencing this unprecedented pandemic, yet we’re reacting very differently depending on our unique personal situations, which can change by the moment.

So many variables come into play for each of us, such as:

  • the virus in your community (the number of cases and deaths in your geographical area)
  • the impact of the virus on you (the number of people you know who’ve had the disease or who have died)
  • the underlying physical and mental health of you and your family members
  • your work situation, including the health of your industry and business (also whether you’ve been thrust into remote work, whether you’re dealing with the public, whether you’re a health care worker or have a family member who is; whether you’re still employed; etc.)
  • your financial situation
  • your shelter-in-place setup, including whether you’re living alone
  • whether you’re now having to home school your children
  • your life experiences to date that have shaped you
  • your mindset
  • etc.

The implications of all these variables? You can’t make assumptions about how others are dealing with this global pandemic without knowing some details about their personal situations.

In other words, if you’re an organizational leader or co-worker who has preferred to date to keep an arm’s length away from your direct reports or colleagues, you’re going to be at a disadvantage in navigating how this pandemic is affecting individuals with whom you work.

You may want to feel and express more empathy and compassion for others. However, you won’t be able to personalize your response unless you have started to familiarize yourself with others. And that presents another paradox — you don’t have real world contact with them today yet they’re an integral part of your work world.

If you offer generic reactions or ignore their situation, you run the risk of being faulted for having a tin ear or regularly putting your foot in your mouth – that is being insensitive, inconsiderate, callous, cold-hearted, or worse. (You also can get this reputation if you have a tendency to showcase your high status compared to others too.)

If you think you may be in this danger zone, how do you get up to speed quickly?

Try these two actions: One, be curious and two, think before you share.

Being curious involves making a sincere effort to get to know something about the individuals you work with. Ask them if you can ask some questions and then inquire about how they and their family members are managing in this pandemic. Take notes so you’ll know what to talk about now and going forward.

And if they ask you about your personal situation, pause before you start talking. Depending on how your life experiences have shaped you and the privileges you also may enjoy, you might want to provide some context with your story. That will help you be perceived as more authentic than annoying.

I’ve learned this the hard way as I initially was sharing my glee about sheltering-in-place, a reaction so opposite from others’ responses.

Yes, I do have some cabin fever. However, I vividly remember the Gramercy Park steam pipe explosion from when I lived and worked in New York City many years ago. And by contrast, sheltering-in-place for the covid-19 pandemic is much more palatable.

For example, what’s different now compared to my New York City experience includes:

  • I’m living in my own home with my husband and my dog Marcel, rather staying by myself in a hotel room for almost six months.
  • I’m eating delicious home-cooked meals, prepared by my husband, rather than going out to restaurants or picking up takeout food for all of my meals.
  • I’m continuing to work in my home office with all my stuff, rather than go back and forth between an office and a sterile hotel room. (Plus as office mates, I have Marcel and his buddies pictured above.)
  • The weather in Charleston, SC where we live has been gorgeous this spring. My husband (a native New Yorker), Marcel, and I take long daily walks in a beautiful small city that we enjoy.
  • This unprecedented crisis is global so we’re all in this together, rather than my earlier only-in New York incident.

Granted, dealing with the uncertainty of the steam pipe explosion encouraged me to build resilience, which is useful now.

Also, since then, I’ve gained more education and life experiences that help me understand and manage this pandemic. For example, my applied neuroscience and behavior design studies and exposure to liminal space are helpful tools both for me and the individuals I coach.

Plus, the frequent and regular contact with my individual coachees and others through video calls keeps us all grounded as the world shifts around us. This social contact through technology – another paradox – encourages us to acknowledge our different reactions as we manage the uncertainty on our own and with each other.

How can you ensure you’re responding to individuals as they are rather than as you are?


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