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Communicating During COVID: The Art of Asking Questions

There has been a lot of chatter about re-opening the economy, and for many of us, this is great news.

My feeling is that re-entry could be a bumpy ride.

If you’re nervous about talking to your clients, customers or patients in the midst of all this, I want you to know that you’re not alone.

Our nation's supply chain has been halted, and seemingly every industry has been touched in one way or another.

We are dealing with an unknown amount of economic injury.

Customers may need to defer a payment or two, patients don’t have access to medical care, and many contracts are on hold.

Everything seems to have hit a pause button which can lead to panic, and we can become paralyzed.

Taking time to focus on our communication and response to the pandemic is critical.

I truly believe that the way we handle ourselves in the next 90 days is going to determine our reputation for the next 10 years.

I want to share one strategy that works great to keep your professional (and personal) relationships strong in a crisis, and that is learning how to open up the conversation.

This can be achieved in three steps:

Step 1: Ask feeling questions

This may seem counterintuitive for a professional setting and yet, we are all human and share a need to feel heard and understood. Asking someone how they feel will invite the conversation to go a bit deeper.

It also completely changes the energy or flow of the conversation. This is because labeling how we feel uses a different part of the brain to process the answer, and according to Matthew Lieberman of UCLA, the act of labeling a feeling instantly makes us feel better by reducing the stress response in the amygdala.

In my industry – the collection industry – a great question to ask consumers is: “How are you feeling about your finances in the next few weeks?”

Step 2: Identify and classify how the person responded to your question

Let’s start with two general types of replies:

Consumer replies with certainty: This is when the consumer feels OK about his or her finances. Even though millions of American have lost their jobs during the coronavirus, some people have been given the opportunity to work from home. The consumer might say, "I’m a little worried, but I am working from home. So for now, everything is OK."

Consumer replies with uncertainty: This is when the consumer is unsure of his or her finances. While some people have been given the opportunity to work remotely, the pandemic has forced most of the country to shelter-in-place and millions of Americans lost their jobs within just a few weeks. The consumer might say, "I’m laid off, and I am worried about how long it is going to take for unemployment to come in.”

Step 3: Focus on your response

This is a vulnerable moment for our customers, teams, friends, and family members, and how you respond will determine the level of trust built.

It’s time to acknowledge their feelings and move our conversations forward with a validation statement.

You might worry that once you go down the road of talking openly about feelings the conversation will get stuck there or you will waste valuable time. The truth is, validation actually saves time because the customer (or family member) will feel heard and be emotionally ready to move on in the conversation.

If you don’t validate and choose to skip this step, the person you’re speaking to will repeatedly bring the conversation back and repeat his story over and over until he feels heard.

Let’s look at the subtle differences in the way we use the validation statement with certain and uncertain responses from consumers in my industry:

Consumer responded with certainty:

Our response: It’s great that you are able to work from home. You’ll be interested in knowing that..."

Consumer responded with uncertainty:

Our response: "I understand how you are feeling. So many people are telling us the same thing, so you are not alone."

Giving the people you are conversing with the opportunity to express themselves is one of the keys to creating connection and long-term relationships. People will remember the way you make them feel during this time. Help the people you interact with see you as an ally.

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