It would be easy to say that we’re at an especially strange point in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic — but really, everything’s been pretty strange for a long while now. Now, looking around the world, we see both success stories and fears of new waves and variants, vaccination rates that stall and some that rise, some governments tightening restrictions while others loosen them, and businesses re-opening or extending remote operation plans. As individuals, we face continued worries about health and finances, the uncertainty of what’s ahead, and the fatigue of keeping it all together.
With so many variables, it’s nearly impossible to map all the threads and how they intersect. We talk a lot about the employee and customer journey and the touchpoints that comprise someone’s experience with your organization, but attentiveness to even more granular micro-moments is critical today. The ideas of “identifying pain points” and “reducing friction” are especially challenging in a world where we’re all facing such personal and sensitive challenges, making it easier to miss out on or mess up moments that matter.
The expression “I don’t get out much” used to have a totally different sense. Over the past year, most of us have had drastically fewer in-person interactions — which is good, of course. However, as many resume more in-person activities, we may be a bit rusty.
Consider the experience of those drivers who used to commute to work daily but now work from home. How are their experiences different when they’re on the road now? Sadly, while traffic volume has decreased, traffic fatality rates have increased during the pandemic. Being “rusty” may be a contributing factor — while you probably won’t forget how to drive, the lack of recent practice can slow your response time and lead to all kinds of dangerous situations. Risky driving due to low traffic rates and lower levels of enforcement are also likely factors in these unfortunate statistics.
The same concept is true in social interactions. You probably don’t make as much small talk with people in your own home as you might with a grocery store cashier or a bank teller. Plus, it’s very likely — hopefully — that you and the person you’re talking to are both wearing masks and trying to keep an appropriate amount of distance apart from each other. This results in an awkward physical and social dance, and it’s easy to get tripped up.
Expecting that everyone will suddenly build up amazing emotional intelligence during one of the most challenging times in recent history is unrealistic. We can offer suggestions for EQ leadership and best practices in cultivating emotional intelligence, but it’s important to acknowledge that there’s no perfect guidebook of how to behave in every possible situation.
Instead, self-awareness is a solid place to start. A daily practice like meditation, prayer, or journaling can help us to keep in touch with ourselves, as strange as that may seem. Regularly connecting with a friend, family member, or therapist can be helpful, too, especially if you’re feeling too overwhelmed to process things by yourself. According to CDC data, 42% of US adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depression in December of 2020 — up from 11% during the first half of 2019.
In addition to the “routine maintenance” approach to self-awareness, build in time to process and prepare yourself before situations that may be especially challenging. If you’re teaching a class or giving a presentation to a client, for example, take a few minutes to check yourself. How are you feeling? Is there anything that’s especially stressing you out — and if so, is there anything you can do to address it now? That annoying dripping sound that just started outside of your window — can you move to another spot before your session starts, or do you just need to let it go? Ideally, you can fix any problems, but even recognizing that you’re feeling slightly annoyed is useful. Remind yourself: If I seem annoyed during this class, my students might think I’m annoyed at them. I’ll let that noise go for now and worry about it later.
It’s always difficult to truly know what someone else is going through. While the pandemic has grouped us all into the same boat, it’s a really big boat.
Consider the way you start the body of an email. “Hope all is well!” may seem like a tone-deaf line that ignores reality, but “Hope you’re hanging in there!” just seems silly and “I hope that you and your family are safe and healthy and avoiding the worst of this situation.” is a little heavy.
Consider how you start a phone call or online meeting or grocery store encounter. Take your pick: “How are you?” “How’s it going?” “What’s up?” While any of these might seem like safe openers, it’s hard to tell what you might get back in return.
Of course, we can only control our own actions, but a brief pause for reflection can help us set up the situation right. This doesn’t mean you return your friend’s “Hi there!” with a deer-in-the-headlights freeze (at least not for too long!), but take a breath and process all you know about this person and their own situation.
In most cases, you probably don’t really know all that much, which is a good reminder: Avoid making assumptions. Has this person or anyone else in their circle had a positive COVID diagnosis? Has this person’s job or financial health been impacted? Has this person been separated from loved ones for a long time? Has this person had the opportunity to get vaccinated?
Especially when dealing with clients, colleagues, students, or others who live across the country or around the world and move in “different circles” (including a wide range of social and economic disparities, especially global vaccine equity), it’s important to remember that many of our experiences are very different. “We’re all in this together” is definitely the shared human experience, but the details absolutely vary.
Be careful about making any assumptions about the experiences of others. Is it okay to share in a “How’s it going?” chat that you or a loved one has recently been vaccinated? You might choose not to over-share, but it’s certainly your decision based on the situation. Is it okay to complain about the 15 minutes you had to wait to get the shot at your local pharmacy? Probably not. You may have no idea what the person you’re taking to has been dealing with, and the micro-moment spent highlighting the imbalance will throw off whatever else you needed to accomplish together.
Even if you wake up perfectly balanced, pray and journal and drink green tea, then proceed into the day with full self-awareness, you’re likely to trip. Maybe you don’t realize that the light has turned green until you hear honking behind you. Maybe you snap at your partner because you’re upset that your internet dropped during an important meeting. It happens. Pause, reset, and forgive. In some cases, sharing (“Sorry, it’s not you, it’s the internet.”) can be really helpful, too.
Even if you enter every interaction perfectly prepared, other-aware and prepared to amp up the empathy, you’re likely to trip someone else up at some point. Maybe you just got a new job, but the person you’re sharing the news with has just been fired. Maybe you’re excited to share that a loved one has recovered, but the person you’re talking to has just admitted a loved one to the hospital. It happens. We’re not mind-readers. Keep your other-awareness high, alert to verbal or non-verbal clues that let you know there’s a problem.
From personal to professional situations, your awareness of the importance of these micro-moments can help to improve the quality of your interactions and the experience of all involved.