Something as simple as writing an email can be fraught when you don’t know what the person on the other end of the inbox is dealing with—illness, economic setbacks or worse. Now, multiply that risk by a factor of 19 when putting out blanket marketing emails to prospective attendees or presenting your budget to the executive team. Debra Fine, author of The Fine Art of Small Talk, has tips for how to message safely, compassionately—and effectively.

1. Greetings

“I hope you are well” is a good place to start and works if not overused. Other approaches may come across in a more enthusiastic way:

  • I hope Chicago is treating you well
  • I hope summer is bringing you some sunshine
  • I miss our meetups
  • We are seeing some light at the end of the tunnel; I hope the same holds true for you
  • Exciting to read that Michigan is doing so much better

2. Endings

Fine likes “take care” or “stay well” to end an email or letter (yes, snail mail is coming back in fashion). Often, she signs off with “all the best” or “all the best to you and your team.” Sometimes she closes with a note about something she learned or knows about them: “Enjoy a great summer,” “stay strong” or a more lighthearted “see you on the other side.”

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3. Shake?

Fine says take the lead when approaching someone. Make sure there is a greeting; she believes strongly we cannot let that go by the wayside—a greeting is what acknowledges the other person. Even though the handshake is probably history for an extended period or possibly forever, it must be replaced by something. A wave with one or both hands or an elbow bump all work great. She has been using “namaste” and explains that it means “I acknowledge the divine in you.”

4. Managing Up

When talking to marketing directors and CEOs, the best way to reset for the current economy is to ask for their expectations about budget, attendance, revenues, etc. before “solving their problem.” Often, this is where many of us err. As the marketing director or CEO describes the pain points, use verbal cues to extract more information and ensure she/he knows you are truly listening. Examples:

  • Tell me more
  • What do you mean by that?
  • And then what do you see happening?
  • What needs to happen first? Next?
  • That sounds tough
  • Must be difficult
  • Uh-huh

Then, in conclusion, ask these magic words: “Is there anything else I need to know?” Only after that thorough download should you offer your insights and how you can help. Fine always offers the downside first, then the upside. Those on the other end of negotiation know we have a new reality; they just do not know what it is.

5. Vendors

When assigning roles and responsibilities for new safety protocols required for a pre-vaccine meeting, paraphrasing is the key to mutual understanding.

As in: “So, you are saying you will be responsible for air circulation, signage and staff monitoring, and we are supplying masks, hand-washing stations and thermometers. Is that correct?”

If all parties agree, then list the remaining items to be covered and negotiate from there.

Or simply ask: “Here is a laundry list of hygiene and safety practices that need to be incorporated into this event. Which do you take responsibility for?”

6. Employees

Don’t guess when it comes to how your direct reports are managing during an unsettling time. Ask, “What is your comfort level?” Or: “What would make you feel comfortable?” Whether it’s coming back to the office, interacting with clients or any other step, let them tell you.

Fine’s daughter, who is on the leadership team for a major association, was just told that there will be a conference at the end of the summer for 500 folks, and that she is expected to attend and present. She was not asked about her comfort level, or what precautions she would want taken to feel comfortable.

Guess what? She immediately began a new opportunity search. Employees who are not listened to or not solicited for feedback are the first to look elsewhere. A genuine caring culture now is more important than ever.

7. Prospective Attendees

When marketing an event, Fine says, just be clear and no nonsense. People want the facts as they are known. It is far scarier to imagine the truth is being withheld. State in all communications that attendee comfort and safety come first, before listing what is being done to ensure wellness and good health.

8. Attendees

Once people are in the room, it is important to instill a sense of comfort by your actions and what is said from the podium. When people believe you have thought of everything, they can relax and enjoy the content. The best way to do that is to deliver the safety information with a smile.

Fine notes that prior to the Aurora shootings in Colorado, you never heard from the platform of a theater where the exit doors were located. Now you are always told, and the doors are clearly marked. Smokers are told where they can smoke without being told how harmful cigarettes are and how they cause second-hand harm. Flight attendants say, “In the unlikely event of a water landing…”

We expect this when there is possibility of disaster or disease. So, tell them what they need to know, then have some fun! Make the 6-foot signs for social distancing engaging, acquire pictures of attendees “unmasked” or have them wear costume masks. Do a socially distanced Simon Says to kick off the meeting. Break the ice—safely.

9. What Not to Do

The worst conversation killer is trying to top each other’s disruptions, work changes, loss of wages and opportunities. When someone lets you know their challenges, show that you are listening by offering verbal cues such as “that has to be tough” or “good for you” or “my heart goes out to you.” This is much more comforting than offering your own litany of challenges or itemizing how your problems are worse than theirs, Fine says. It is similar to stating, “I know,” as someone discloses they did not get PPP or has been furloughed. None of us knows what it is like for another.