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Opinion

In these pressurised Covid times, a little common courtesy can go a long way

If Andy Lopata has learned anything from Covid it’s that kindness is never the wrong approach

“A ‘How are you?’ would have been nice”.

I learned a hard lesson back in April, when my business-like tone in a text exchange upset a friend of mine who was doing me a favour. I had asked this friend to review the manuscript of my new book and was replying to her text telling me that she was being furloughed, had a stack of work to complete first and might struggle to get her thoughts to me in time.

I didn’t mean to be blunt or unfeeling in my response, which acknowledged the delay and asked whether she could get back to me by the end of the month. Reading it back, I can understand why she was upset with me. I didn’t express any sympathy for her being furloughed, ask how she was or what I could do to help. I just focused on what I needed from her.

This wasn’t a standalone case. In the first couple of months of lockdown I upset three or four people, that I know of. Just by being business-focused in my communication with them.

I didn’t stop to think about what was happening in the worlds of the people I was speaking to

That’s not typical of the way I usually engage with others, at least I certainly hope not. I was so wrapped up in my own world, working out how to ensure my business survived the lockdown, as well as working on two books, that I didn’t stop to think about what was happening in the worlds of the people I was speaking to.

And this was probably my biggest takeaway from the last year. Maybe it was typical of my usual communication, I just hadn’t noticed before because the world isn’t usually so volatile. It’s so easy to be caught up in our own priorities and needs that we forget that we are not top of the list for others.

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That’s true in any normal year, over the last 10 months the importance of recognising this and dialling up the empathy has accelerated dramatically.

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When you are next on a work call or in a team Zoom, look at the others on the call. What is happening beyond the reach of the camera? Are they trying to keep their kids quiet or squeezing in a call in between home-schooling classes? Perhaps they are worried about being furloughed or facing redundancy. Maybe they are feeling under the weather and waiting for the results of a Covid test.

It may be that the person facing redundancy, ill-health or struggling with other issues is not the person you’re speaking to but a husband or wife, their child or parent. That doesn’t detract from the pressure the challenge adds, in fact it may well increase it.

This last year has brought the need to be nicer to each other and more understanding sharply into focus

One person I spoke to last year was trying to cope with the demands of a high-pressure role while worrying about her elderly mother who lived on her own more than 200 miles away and who wouldn’t move closer to be easier to care for. She was driving to see her mother once a week, despite the national lockdown restricting such journeys. She had no choice.

It was traumatic for her every time she left her mother and started to drive home. Of course, somebody calling her during that journey may have no idea of her circumstances or mindset and the wrong tone or word could lead to a response the caller certainly didn’t intend.

This last year has brought the need to be nicer to each other and more understanding sharply into focus. Whether on calls, on social media or from behind our masks in the supermarket, we need to understand that we may well have little idea of what is happening in other people’s lives and be able to respond accordingly.

If we can learn to get along with greater empathy when it’s so needed right now, perhaps we can carry a new, outward-looking approach into our personal and professional relationships into the post-pandemic world.

And just remember, a ‘How are you?’ can be nice.

Andy Lopata is a speaker, author and podcast host specialising in professional relationships. His book, Just Ask: Why Seeking Support is your Greatest Strength is out now (Panoma Press, £18.99)

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