Communicating Through a Personal Crisis

by Sabina Nawaz

Quick Takes

  • Be the first to notify people
  • Clarify what you want—and don’t want—from your colleagues
  • Pick the communication channel that works for you
  • Pay it forward when your crisis is behind you

One day amid a flourishing career, you might find your personal life in crisis and threatening to upend your professional life. If so, you’re not alone.

Just before boarding a flight from Boston to London to meet with a major client, Anique received a call from her 10-year-old daughter Jasmine, not to wish her bon voyage but overcome in the throes of a panic attack. This initiated an 18-month journey through Jasmine’s struggles with acute anxiety.

Rhonda, a senior manager and thought leader in her field, remembers two life-altering conversations she had in a single week: “One with the minister and my parents on how to conduct my mother’s impending memorial service. The other was a meeting with my son and his psychiatrist about how to have a plan for when he is suicidal.”

Or consider Derek, an executive at a global firm. “When you’re successful like I’ve been in my career, you pick positive adjectives for yourself. You don’t use the word ‘alcoholic,’” he said. With two young kids and a wife, he felt defeated for the first time.

These are stories related by successful executives among my coaching clients who have faced family crises jeopardizing their performance at work. Some have struggled with a snowballing challenge for years, afraid to admit the problem and seek help. For others, the downward spiral was precipitated by a routine trip to the doctor or an unexpected phone call. They’ve had to overcome shock, face inconvenient truths, confront shame, and risk career damage. The tsunami of the triggering event compounded by consequent emotions spins them in a vicious cycle and then spits them out to a place of clarity where they must make choices and communicate with colleagues.

In-depth interviews with several clients, the challenges revealed by others during coaching conversations, and my own experiences with adversity persuade me that every individual’s situation and their response to it is unique. All together, these stories point to two effective tactics we can employ to juggle work, a crisis, our families, and ourselves.

Manage the Flow of Information

One of the first decisions involves how to communicate our circumstances to coworkers and how much to disclose. If the issue is in the open, such as a family death that is covered in the news, or visible, as when an individual goes through aggressive cancer treatment, we want to be the first to notify people at work. Initially we may be tempted to shroud seemingly shameful or simply private issues in secrecy, but these challenges are common to the human condition and empathetic colleagues can be a tremendous support. Being the first to provide information also helps us ensure its accuracy.

Some individuals want to openly discuss issues such as mental illness to help address the stigma that accompanies these widespread struggles. However, when one of our loved ones is suffering, we must also consider their privacy. What’s more, revealing a child’s condition might make colleagues think we’re going to be less reliable, distracted from work, and unable to put in the hours. We also want to be mindful that sharing an ongoing issue is different from revealing our past. Raw and evolving emotions can elicit awkwardness from others who may resort to giving us unsolicited special treatment. Some confidences are best shared only with our closest coworkers, those who will notice changes in our performance and may need to understand and provide accommodations. Managers have additional considerations. As Rhonda said, “I think there can be a danger of oversharing, especially as a boss.” Less specificity, such as, “Thank you for asking, I’ll share more later,” can work for others.

Follow similar guidelines at home when you decide what to disclose. Communicating with children merits special consideration. Aside from obvious factors such as your children’s ages, first discuss choices with your partner and start with values you both embrace. We learned of my husband’s brother’s death after our kids were asleep. We agreed to wait until morning when I would share the news with them. We wanted to be transparent with our children about what happened and to give them space to mourn their loss. Because I delivered the news, they didn’t feel pressure to console their dad before processing their own emotions.

Clarify Your Preferences and Expectations

When disclosing our challenges, we want to be clear about what we do or don’t want from people. For example, “I’m overwhelmed and unable to process advice or offers for help; the best thing you can do for me is simply listen.” Nonnegotiables need to be clear to everyone, such as the day care pickup time when you have custody of your kids. We determine what medium to use for communication. When Natalya faced the death of a loved one by suicide, she told only two people at work directly, followed by an email to her group. In the email, she asked that others continue to treat her as they had previously because it was too painful for her to discuss the situation.

Many have told me that working helped during a serious challenge if they could set boundaries to address immediate needs and their emotional well-being. According to Rhonda, “Work was an opportunity to control things when lots was going on that I couldn’t control. Work had an accomplishable side to it.” If you need time off from work, whether to care for someone else or for your own health, make a clear request and you will often get what you ask for. “Nobody ever questioned when I needed time to be with my family, which was my biggest ask,” Natalya said.

Most of my interviewees advocate professional therapy for themselves and their children, and they also speak of it openly to break the taboo around it. In fact, the insights offered here aren’t substitutes for the support of a mental health practitioner, which I am not. Please consult with one if your challenge merits professional attention. Teletherapy has made this more convenient than ever, even for the busiest among us.

What lies on the other side of a family crisis? Some hardships pass, some become part of our new normal, and many bring us to a better place than before. Most of my clients who have gone through these rough patches say this is the healthiest they’ve been, others have been promoted at work, and several believe their relationships are stronger than ever. Once they’re no longer in the clutches of these challenges, they pay it forward, through small acts of kindness, mentorship and sponsorship, or simply showing up to listen, without judgment. “The more we recognize that the people we’re working with all have to deal with these things from time to time,” Rhonda shared, “the more compassionate it makes us, the more humane the workplace becomes.”

Adapted from “Working Through a Personal Crisis,” on hbr.org, July 6, 2020 (product #H0500J).

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