Current events in Israel and Gaza are affecting many people intensely. As the war continues, this is only likely to deepen.
Supporting colleagues who are facing difficult/traumatic experiences and world events is something we often talk about in our work. Mainly, we talk to leaders and this guidance is aimed at you, but the principles apply to all of us: it's not only my boss who can show me they care by asking how I’m doing.
At its simplest, our answer to the question, ‘when should I talk to someone about something?’ is, ‘when it could be a big thing sitting right in front of them.’
The war is and will continue to be a massive thing for many people. Your Jewish and your Palestinian colleagues and anyone with family or friends in or connected with Israel or Gaza are likely to be suffering greatly. What makes this situation so challenging in workplaces and in our social lives is the depth of feeling it engenders and the huge range of views.
We can all address human suffering with humanity. If we focus on workplaces, addressing a colleague’s human suffering is a contained goal; it’s about reaching out and making a human connection, hopefully making the person feel safer and less lonely.
The fear: what stops us approaching colleagues
Generally, there are two main reasons we hold back. First, we don’t want to make any assumptions (about how the events are affecting them). Second, we don’t know what to say: we think we lack the skills to have the conversation.
And there’s something else holding many people back in the current situation too; with the depth of feeling, what if we think our views and beliefs about the situation don’t align with the other person’s? With views being so polarised, there will clearly be fear. If you’re a leader or manager, this can be really difficult and you need to address consciously whether your personal views and beliefs may be preventing you from connecting with someone on your team.
It’s important to understand your own role in the conversation. What we’re proposing is letting someone know they are seen and that you care, so they do not feel they need to hide how they are feeling or try to pretend they are unaffected. Workplaces can be very lonely places, especially when you’re experiencing something intensely that you don’t feel you can talk about. We’re not proposing that you share your views, rather that you listen without judgement to whatever the other person may want, or perhaps needs, to say.
The skills: how to do it
At its heart this is about humanity and compassion, and here are some practical, actionable tips that can help:
1. Plan what you want to say – even though it’s a short, human approach, go through it in your mind.
2. Clarify your very simple aim - something like ‘I want them to feel heard’ or ‘I want them to know they’re in my thoughts.’ That’s it – no more. Possibly, also ‘as their boss, is there anything practical I can do’.
3. Start with what’s true. That may involve some real honesty: ‘I’m worried that I don’t know how to say this correctly but….’. You may feel like you should admit that you don’t talk enough about things that may be having an impact on people around you.
4. Leave space. Once you’ve asked something like ‘How are you with what’s happening at the moment in Israel and Gaza.’ Let the other person have all the time they need; stay with them physically and emotionally. Listen to what they are saying, without judgement, ask gentle questions.
Listening without judgement is not simple. You have to turnoff your brain’s normal reactions. Be present, in a way that’s authentic. Think about your tone. Focus on your breathing: it will slow you down. Remember what your role is: it’s to make a human connection. Be comfortable with any emotion both of you are feeling, recognise it.
Humility + curiosity = kindness here. Humility means it’s not about you. It’s about a colleague who is hurting and grieving.
What if they don’t feel able to talk with you about this? Ensure they know there’s somewhere they can turn: another manager; a nominated person; an HR colleague; or even a helpline if you offer one. That’s a strong message an employer can convey to all: ‘Please know you don’t have to suffer alone in silence, and here’s where you can go…” Something as simple as designating a space where someone can quietly be, or privately cry, is a way of showing you see someone’s pain at this difficult time.
Not getting involved in debating the morality of the situation
Managing increasingly polarised workplaces is a topic on everyone’s minds and an escalating conflict in the Middle East will be both extremely divisive and highly emotive.
What we’ve written about above – connecting with a colleague who is suffering – doesn’t involve any detailed engagement on the subject or comment on the morality of the situation, simply a recognition that the person is suffering.
What if the person you are talking to replies with strong views that are different to your own? You don't need to agree or disagree. Your intent in this conversation wasn’t to share your views. You can thank them for sharing, recognise that this is a highly emotive topic, but reiterate that you just wanted to say that the person was in your thoughts, not debate the issues with them.
Our strong advice is not to get into a debate about the conflict with someone whose views don’t align with yours. We say this while being extremely conscious that in workplaces all over the world there will be colleagues, many of whom are required to work closely together, who hold polarised views. If you are managing or leading people facing this situation, you need to be proactive.
You need to agree how your people are going to navigate the issue. We’ve written elsewhere about navigating polarisation at work; some top line messages are that a central part of inclusion is recognising and respecting that other people are different to you. And to help you navigate difficult situations or topics, focusing on the impact you have is key.
If you have been impacted by someone else's views, comments and/or conversation and you want to share how you are feeling, do that first with someone else; think who the best person might be to support you. As you’re reflecting (and possibly discussing with someone else how you feel), have in your mind how the person is experiencing the situation. Their experience is very different to yours.
It's also worth emphasising that Anti-Semitic, Islamophobic- or other racist views are unlawful and will be contrary to any workplace policies an employer has in place.
This is not going to be easy. Perhaps it’s wise to finish with some of the wisdom of psychotherapist Esther Perel: ‘Don't lose touch with the part of you needed most. Your compassion. Your humanity. Your care.’