Leadership: Say it like a leaderResiliency & attitudeTeam-building

What Hurricane Irma taught me about communicating under stress

By September 11, 2017December 7th, 2019No Comments

Thank you, Irma. You have reminded me of many important facts about communicating during stressful times.

This past week has been difficult for many people. My heart goes out to all those suffering losses at the hand and breath of Hurricane Irma. Several islands and a good part of Florida and other states were touched in various degrees by her ferocity. She ripped through areas leaving a trail of destruction behind her.

This past weekend, I spent most of two days glued to the TV set watching weather updates. It was horrible witnessing the damage of the hurricane winds followed by the dangerous swell of flooding surges.

It was painful waiting and worrying how hard our friends in Cape Coral were going to get hit. And then we wondered how our Florida condo was going to survive, if at all. At one point, the weather forecasters were warning of a category 5 hurricane hitting our area directly.

Thankfully, although we were safe in Niagara Falls, we worried about people and property not so fortunate.

When all this news came to light, my sister and brother-in-law who co-own the condo with us, were in Florida and wisely decided to cut their vacation short and endure the stressful and traffic-laden trip driving back home. That was Monday and the drive which normally takes two days took a full three. The hurricane hit Cape Coral five days after they left Florida, and we all lived on pins and needles until then.

That Tuesday, my husband and I arranged to have our hurricane shutters installed. As soon as we found and contacted a supplier, we advised our condo partners that we had done so. When the shutters were installed hours later, we emailed them photo proof that it was done and taken care of. One less thing for them and us to worry about.

A couple of days prior, when the hurricane was imminent I was told that our condo insurance didn’t cover for interior damages or personal effects. I took that to mean that if our walls, carpets, cupboards, clothing, appliances, and furniture were damaged by winds, water surges, power outages or any hurricane-related situations, we would have to replace them at our own expense. I personally didn’t have a copy of the insurance policy and hadn’t read the terms since we had originally signed off on them nine years prior, so we took her at her word. Thinking we had no insurance on those potential damages caused us anxiety, as the hurricane loomed near.

During this time, as news reports advised of the hurricane approaching within a day, a friend who also summers in Canada and winters in Florida, mentioned that her insurance only covered her up to a category 3 hurricane. Yikes! They were predicting a cat 5 for our area.

I immediately asked what level of hurricane our insurance covered. Two days passed, and so did the hurricane, before I got an answer — we had been covered for cat 5 hurricanes. And oh, and by the way, I was casually advised that yes, we were covered for personal effects.

While others giggled and made a game of imagining all the new furniture and clothing they would buy with insurance money if everything got damaged, my husband and I spent two sleepless nights.

When I got this update, I was so relieved! Then I realized I had needlessly suffered from worry for days. Sigh. Before hearing this, my husband and I had consoled ourselves with the potential loss by knowing we and our relatives were safe. We told ourselves to let go, it’s only material things. And yet, in spite of our best efforts to allay concerns, we still worried. While others giggled and made a game of imagining all the new furniture and clothing they would buy with insurance money if everything got damaged, my husband and I spent two sleepless nights.

People handle stress differently. Some introvert, cocoon, and joke about a difficult situation as a way of dealing with it. The danger is that to others who worry rather than feel like a joke, this behaviour is so foreign, it feels like being shut out. It’s important to understand that fantasizing about furniture and shopping trips may seem trite on the surface when, in fact, it’s a way for some to cope with a difficult situation they hope they wouldn’t have to face. It helps some get through it while, regrettably, disappoints others.

That whole experience taught me a lot. The whole hurricane experience did. Here’s what I learned …


Respond quickly.

  • When someone asks you an operational question, something that’s going to affect the reason of the stress (like, “does our insurance go up to category 5 hurricane), respond immediately. Doing so provides information and replaces ambiguity and worry with known facts. It allows someone to move forward.

Proactively share critical information.

  • If you have a piece of information that will lower someone else’s stress level, share it. Share it now. Don’t wait until they ask you about something. If you know it’s going to be useful to a person, you have the ability to relieve them from several sleepless nights. To do anything less is heartless. The news networks rocked this. They kept coverage going for days and updated constantly. This helped a great deal in relieving stress and keeping us updated. Kudos to them! Our Florida neighbours (er, um, I mean “neighbors”) created a Facebook private group to provide updates, photos, and videos of our community so we could actually see the damage. They posted that they were clearing drains and sewer caps to ensure local drainage from the storms, they gave updates on weather and told of impacts, and they consoled us with the knowledge that the damage was minimal — a few hurricane shutters had blown off, some lights broken, and several fallen trees. This information and immediate responses helped immensely in filling the void with rock-solid and accurate updates.

Validate concerns.

  • Consider the other person’s perspective and act accordingly. Don’t make light of someone’s worries, just because they didn’t come to pass — even if humour is your coping mechanism, it may not be theirs. When someone lets you know they were worried, don’t slough over it like it’s no big deal. Acknowledge that concern and validate their feelings.

Apologize for your oversight.

  • We’re human. We mess up. If you now see how you could have helped someone by communicating better and, for whatever reason, you didn’t, own up to it now. Apologize for the oversight. Doing so acknowledges the unnecessary stress you, yes you, put that person through.

Realize everyone handles stress differently.

  • Don’t be offended by someone’s oversight to reach out to you. They’re doing the best they know how. Don’t let their strategy of coping get under your skin — it’s their way of getting through a difficult time. It might not be the best way, but it’s the best they know.
This story has a happy ending. Our community in Florida was spared, unlike many others. We are so grateful to all our friends who stayed on-site and kept us informed. You’re our heroes.
They say every cloud has a silver lining. Well, I guess then I would say that every hurricane has a lesson to be learned. I hope I’ve learned them well and that nature doesn’t figure I need another lecture. And I hope that you also can use what I’ve learned. What will you put to action next time you’re in a stressful situation?

Have a comment? Post it below 🙂

Post below how you appreciate being communicated to when you’re stressed or let me know what you think about these suggestions. I look forward to seeing your posts.
Here’s to communication to get better, faster, easier results,
Marion Grobb Finkelstein
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“Marion Grobb Finkelstein, Workplace Communication Consultant, travels across Canada to help business people and organizations communicate in the workplace to get better, faster, easier results. She can help you too. Marion@MarionSpeaks.com 289-969-7691 www.MarionSpeaks.com  OPT-IN to Marion’s Workplace Communication Tips enews at www.marionspeaks.com
Marion Grobb Finkelstein

Marion Grobb Finkelstein helps leaders use their natural communication strengths to build resilient teams that talk.

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