by Amy McGahan

June 1, 2020

This weekend, people across our country and around the world protested the death of George Floyd. While we witnessed many violent acts, we also saw photos and videos from peaceful protests—many of which captured local law enforcement officers marching with protestors, also demanding action and change. As the world watched, it was proven that when law enforcement showed empathy to protestors and showed that they really wanted to listen and understand, violence in many cases was mitigated or avoided.

For example, Sheriff Christopher R. Swanson of Genesee County, Michigan, took off his gear and laid down his baton to listen to the protestors and understand their wants and needs. In an interview on TODAY, Sheriff Swanson said that after he showed the protestors that he wanted to listen to them and work together, the entire crowd’s mindset and heart changed because they wanted to be heard. And so far, his community has had no fires, no injuries and no arrests. Swanson, who has received much praise and accolades for how he handled the situation, talked about how important it was to show vulnerability as part of his response to the crowd. A stark contrast to other situations where brute force was immediately deployed without taking the time to listen and show empathy.

In another example, Art Acevedo, the police chief in Houston, Texas, marched with protestors and spoke out against police brutality in an emotional speech. He has been out in his local community talking and listening to protestors, while also appearing at an outdoor religious ceremony in the community. Overall, Houston’s protests have been more peaceful than other cities’ as a result.

So, what can we learn from these leaders as they navigate high-pressure crisis situations? In many instances, companies and organizations fail to show empathy when dealing with a difficult situation or crisis, often resulting in backfires and escalation.

What are some major takeaways from this style of leadership? Here are three strategies to employ that also proved vital in mitigating violence during the protests:

  1. Listening is crucial. While it is important to nail your messaging, it is just as important to listen. What are your stakeholders, including employees, customers and investors, saying? Beyond that, what are they feeling? How should you adjust your messaging as a result? It also is important to know what is being said about your organization in the media and on social media, so be sure to monitor that.
  2. Choose your language wisely. Sheriff Swanson told the protestors that the police “love them” and asked what they needed. That defused the situation. When you are drafting your messaging, be sure to use language that is not going to inflame the situation or cause further divisiveness.
  3. Nonverbals matter. Sheriff Swanson talked to the crowd without his riot gear and batons. Chief Acevedo mingled with protestors and talked with them one-on-one with no gear and non-threatening body language. Think about how your spokespersons come across when delivering messages to stakeholders. Where and how are they delivering the message? Sometimes, when communicating with employees, for example, casual dress and face to face works better than a three-piece suit and a video.

For a few more strategies, take a look at our most recent blog. Last week, Dix & Eaton President Lisa Rose talked about the importance of compassionate leadership during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis in her most recent post. If or when your company or organization faces a crisis, be sure to consider empathy and compassion in your strategy and response. In many cases, it can make a huge difference and bring the situation to a resolution faster and amicably.

If you would like to discuss crisis preparedness and response, I’d be happy to talk. You can reach me at amcgahan@dix-eaton.com or 216-241-3027.