Leading with Empathy During a Crisis

September 11, 2001 was my son’s first day at NYU. The phone lines were down. The city was closed. There was no way to find out if he was okay.

In desperation, I did the only thing I could think to do — I wrote to the dean. With no expectation that she would respond, or even read it, as the horror continued to unfold. I emailed her anyway, a desperate parent begging to know what the university was doing to keep these frightened and bewildered 18-year-olds safe.

She wrote back the next day…

I’ve been thinking a lot about that dean’s response to me recently as colleges and universities grapple with how to communicate with increasingly anxious and uncertain parents. How do you offer both much-needed reassurance and tactical information at the same time?

Here are five important lessons I learned from that letter and what I recommend you consider when  responding to parents  in the midst of a crisis:

  1. Respond Quickly

The simple fact that she wrote back right away impressed me more than anything else.

No one knew much at that point, but she took the time to reassure me that the wellbeing and safety of students was their highest priority. She probably said this in different ways to many people in the days that followed, but I felt that she was speaking directly to me.

  1. Make It Personal

Her tone was both sympathetic and straightforward. There was no “administrative speak.” She showed empathy with me as a fellow parent. She encouraged me to stay in touch.

  1. Acknowledge Anxiety and Fear

She didn’t try to sugarcoat the degree of distress and helplessness that we as parents, but more importantly, our students, were feeling. Instead, she made it clear that she shared in our collective apprehension.

  1. Summarize What You Do/ Do Not Know

She promised regular updates, and outlined immediate plans for the cessation of classes and plans for academic support. We don’t have all the answers, she wrote plainly, and there is a great deal we do not know

This engendered trust, a crucial component when dealing with unfolding and unpredictable events. I knew that she was giving it to me straight.

  1. “We Got This”

We all want to know that the people we entrust our children to have the situation under control, even if they don’t.

As crises continue to unfold, parents  want to know that you’re on top of things. Reassurance is what they are looking for, with the assertion that there are all kinds of capable people doing everything they can.

For example, “teams of individuals are working tirelessly to determine how we can all be safe during the difficult days ahead. We are grateful to the Health Services, Campus Safety and Student Affairs teams that are working through complex scenarios with diligence and care.”

Nearly twenty years later, it is remarkable that I can still recall what she said and the impact it had on me.

As a leader in higher ed faced with an unexpected crisis, you’ve got the same opportunity to instill a sense of trust. No one knows what the new academic year will look like, but as long as you can lead with empathy, what you say will go a long way towards garnering the support you and your colleagues will need going forward.