How to Lead with Compassion During Traumatic Times

Nov 16, 2023 | 0 comments

how to lead with compassion

First published on on 11.15.23

Many leaders want to talk about current tragic events with their teams, but they opt out for fear of saying the wrong thing, activating an employee or simply because they don’t know where to start the conversation.

In the past, it may have been easier to pretend that events in the U.S. or worldwide didn’t impact our emotions or well-being at work. But because of the intensity, complexity, consistency and personal nature of events over the last few weeks (and years), that’s no longer an option. People are hurting. People are unable to function. Current events that either repeat or remind us of our own unresolved traumas can create a flood of stress on the body and psyche. As leaders, we need to lean into leading with compassion more than ever.

Be willing to engage

During collectively traumatic events, we must be willing to acknowledge the reality of what’s happening, listen to the individual experiences of those impacted, and ensure that they feel seen, heard and understood in their pain.

For organizational leaders who wonder if engaging is the right thing to do, “Leading during traumatic and triggering events” is a great resource on the impact of saying nothing, checking in, making meaning and taking action.

Create space

Creating space for emotion within workplaces is a fairly new concept — mostly because it has historically been unacceptable. Holding space for that emotion is the next layer, requiring high-conscious leadership.

Holding space means witnessing another person’s emotional state while simultaneously being present with your own. Leaders actively healing their own past trauma typically have a greater capacity to witness real human emotion without feeling the need to fix, solve, soothe, interrupt or change someone’s experience in real-time.

Real answers only

Check-in with your team at the beginning of meetings. If this is a new practice, most people will likely respond with the default, “I’m fine.” or “All good.” Or worse, “Great, and I have a hard stop at noon.” These responses keep us disconnected, perpetuating the emotional masking of our human selves in the workplace. When we model vulnerability and allow people to share how they’re truly feeling, everyone better understands how each person is functioning and can support or collaborate accordingly. Asking, “How is everyone coming into this call?” — and adding “Real answers only” to our verbal invitation — offers permission to be human.

Just as important is offering space for those who cannot voice their emotions or simply choose not to. Not everyone on your team will personally share their feelings about current events or what’s happening to them. Some won’t feel safe to do so. Some prefer privacy. Some may give a one-word response indicating they are overwhelmed by emotion and unwilling to engage in a professional setting. All responses are welcome and must be respected.

Share care practices

A regulated nervous system is critical to functioning in life and at work. Asking something as simple as “How are you taking care of yourself?” when someone expresses a big emotion can open a discussion about the various tools, modalities and practices in which other people engage. As the leader, offering your own practice as a starting point (or being honest that you don’t have one) both models vulnerability and creates a space where others feel safer to share.

Self-care can only go so far in these situations, though, so remember that you are responsible for facilitating care in community. Your people spend more time working for your organization and with their colleagues than with their families. Expressing emotions and processing grief is vital to functioning, so if you’re asking them to show up for you, show up for them. That felt sense of reciprocity will go a long way because people will never forget how you made them feel during these traumatic times.

Offer support

There’s been a lot of talk about leading with empathy, but that can fall short when people are struggling. Instead, compassion is feeling with someone’s experience and taking action to support them. Some requests may emerge by engaging in these open conversations, or you can ask how you can best support your people individually and collectively.

Be willing to offer support outside the box. That could look like co-creating a ritual together or maybe even hiring a grief coach for employees who would find that extra support helpful. Whether it’s a coach who focuses on trauma, grief or something else, most of those services can be offered in individual or group settings.

Given the weight of the ongoing traumatizing events that are happening at home and around the world right now, we can all benefit from more space, calm, and compassion. As the steward of your people, you have a leadership responsibility to feel and act. That doesn’t mean you’re expected to know what to say or even to get it right. Like inner healing work, courage and willingness are the only two components needed to lead with compassion during these traumatic times.


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Kelly L. Campbell

Kelly (they/she) is a Trauma-Informed Leadership Coach to emerging and established leaders who know they are meant for more. She is a keynote speaker on the intersection of trauma, leadership, and consciousness—the new TLC—and founder of Consciousness Leaders, the world’s most diverse speaker’s agency. They are the author of HEAL to LEAD: Revolutionizing Leadership through Trauma Healing (Wiley).


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