Conversation: The heart of post Covid-19 change

Emily Cosgrove and Sara Hope on how leaders need empathy and conversational wisdom to navigate the seismic changes they currently face.

It is said that it can take somewhere around 66 days for a new behaviour to become a habit. Since the beginning of lockdown, we have connected with our families, colleagues, customers, and clients in different ways.

We may have learnt how to work from home. We may have learnt new digital skills. We may also have become more aware of the needs of those closest to us. Our families, our neighbours, our communities. We have formed new habits.

Many businesses have transformed the way they operate because of the coronavirus pandemic. Digital transformation that was anticipated would take years has happened over night. Scores of office blocks that were bursting at the seams with people are only now beginning to welcome them back, whilst many continue to be based at a new desk, at home.

Shoppers now click and wait for a delivery van rather than go into a physical space and touch or feel a product. The disruption from COVID-19 has acted as an accelerant to changing the way we work, live, interact with our families and those around us. Organisation have also formed or are in the process of forming new systemic habits.

Recognising our individual lived experiences during COVID-19 requires sensitivity and awareness

The challenge for us all, and for our organisations, will be how to support each other with some of those habits – of flexibility, of working from home – and to provide a culture and environment where people feel engaged and connected both to each other and the wider business. How we do this when so much, including the way we connect and support each other through our conversations, has changed?

The conversations we have been having with our clients in major organisations during recent weeks are highlighting the need for leaders and managers to successfully navigate new models for those who will continue to work from home, whether full or part time, as well as skilfully support people return to work in a safe way.

Not just physically, but emotionally too. Recognising our individual lived experiences during COVID-19 requires sensitivity and awareness. It requires a willingness to treat people as individuals, not just a number. To focus on the intangibles – relationships, conversations, emotions, empathy – as well as the tangibles.

Bringing everyone back together and creating a culture where people thrive and flourish in such a changed, and still uncertain, context is a formidable task. There will be incredibly tough commercial decisions being made. Sadly, numerous jobs and livelihoods are likely to be lost. 

Organisations may well have employees who have lived through the trauma of losing loved ones and not been able to attend funerals. Those who have been living alone, furloughed, feeling isolated and disconnected. 

Those who have been juggling home schooling with working at the kitchen table – trying to monitor the amount of children’s screen time. Those who have been caring for an elderly relative who is lonely where the only conversation has been through a face on a screen.

Those key workers who have been up close and personal with a much higher risk than the rest of us. Real life happens at work and outside of work: success, joy, failure, trauma.

While all the above may be the lived experiences on the surface, lying beneath is a plethora of emotions that feed into how each of us shows up. Emotions. Feelings. Not necessarily words that we hear that often at work, or indeed give time to talk about.


But emotions keep us safe. They help us survive, thrive and evolve. And they provide a huge part of the framework we use to communicate effectively. During a crisis, emotions are heightened. We tend not to stay in the same emotional place for very long or be in the same emotional place as others. 

In the current context there may be anxiety – am I going to be made redundant? Fear – is it safe for me to go into the office? Excitement – I can’t wait to see my colleagues face to face again. Exhaustion – I haven’t had a proper break since the beginning of lockdown.

This uniqueness of our individual emotional experience is real, and leaders need to demonstrate that they understand and recognise this. Show that they care; that they can be a trusted colleague and a friend at work.

When emotional overwhelm strikes, we respond to empathy. Being empathetic in our conversations strengthens our relationships, builds connection and creates the conditions where it feels safe for us to share our thoughts, concerns and feelings. Theresa Wiseman, nursing scholar, has identified four attributes of empathy:

  1. Perspective taking – the ability to recognise that another’s perspective is their ‘truth’.
  2. To be non-judgmental – staying out of judgement about the other person, their beliefs and behaviours.
  3. Recognising emotion in others – understanding another person’s feelings which requires us to be in touch with the same feelings in ourselves.
  4. Communicating our understanding of the other person’s feelings.

It is in our relationships and through our conversations that we find the emotional sustenance and understanding that we need to thrive. So, whether it is back in the office, on the phone or through (yet another) Zoom, our conversations are key to how we support each other through the continued change that we all face.

Simply and brilliantly stated by Margaret Wheatley, “Human conversation is the easiest and most ancient way to cultivate the conditions for change”. The challenge for all of us is to remember the simplicity of this notion and commit to actively growing our spirit of curiosity, our capacity to truly listen and our willingness to understand emotions.

Growing our own ‘conversational wisdom’® (awareness, skill and authenticity) in small ways every day – during the shortest of chats and in more formal work conversations – will help us to strengthen our human connections and build even more trust. In our teams. With our peers. And with our colleagues.

Building these habits, really is the key to supporting each other through change.


About the authors

Emily Cosgrove and Sara Hope are co-founders of The Conversation Space



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