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Crisis Communication & Covid-19: Did our politicians test positive for ‘empathy’?

This is an opinion piece, examining one reader's perspective on world leaders. Feedback is encouraged. 

“Do not be disheartened” – Ardern; “I hope you will work with me” – Lee Hsien;

“Every life, every person counts” – Merkel; “Help me spread the word” – Trudeau;

“I must level with you, the British public” – Johnson; “I seek your forgiveness” – Modi;

“We are at war” – Macron; “The virus is the devil, cannot let the devil hide” – Xi Jinping;

“It’s the Chinese virus” – Trump; “__________” – Putin (we haven’t heard from him, yet)

There couldn’t be a more opportune moment for political leaders around the world to shine, not even a war against sworn enemies of their respective nations would create such a stage; and yet, none were ready. In these unfortunate times, when most people in quarantine are tuning in for guidance, political leaders are miserably failing to connect with the communities they govern. For leaders in such positions of power, why have they struggled with authority? Most politicians have been comfortable demanding submission instead of commanding it, so when the mob mentality takes over during a pandemic, did they test positive for empathy? – a virtue crucial to achieving mutual understanding of social distancing and self-isolation.  

A recent article applauds New Zealand’s Covid-19 lockdown as the “strongest and most decisive” in the world. The columnist refers to a research-based model, suggesting that PM Jacinda Ardern scored highly on “direction-giving”, “meaning-making” and “empathy” – key elements leaders must address to motivate followers during a crisis. We will soon know if New Zealand will be the first country to officially “eradicate the virus”, and Ardern might even receive her fair share of credit; but her ability to get down-to-earth and relate to people as a ‘prime-minister-next-door’ is what fascinates me as a student of conflict resolution.

Ardern’s casual video message – dressed in a hoodie, “hunkered down” in her bedroom with no make-up and folded knees – appealed to me instantly. There was a sincere attempt to empathize with her followers as she gave them the bad news of the country approaching its peak of Covid-19 cases. Not everyone can pull off a casual call. UK prime minister Boris Johnson attempted to “level with the British public” from the front camera of his phone, but his alarming pleas were ignored. He then went on to apathetically state that people will die and that life must go on, showing no regard for both – the dead and the living. Studying the language and tone at his press conferences, Johnson’s “instructions” and “advice” seem more like a strict school teacher explaining rules to a bunch of incorrigible students. Brits weren’t convinced of his cries to self-isolate; after all, he was mistaken for the boy who cried wolf.

Elsewhere, Donald Trump lost himself in the pandemonium and mistook the hysteria surrounding the health crisis for a more familiar environment of a reality show. The 45th president of the USA projected himself to be a “cheerleader” for the country, forgetting that he claimed to be a “war-time president”, a few weeks earlier. Clearly suffering an identity crisis which is now manifesting in these tense moments, he has only added chaos to confusion by playing scientist and has got Americans more worried about the immediate future (safety) and the bigger picture (economy). No one, absolutely no one expects and holds Trump responsible for finding the cure – that’s for the scientists to do – but, they expected him to at least forge some concern. Instead, his press conferences are emotionless horror shows – painfully comical. His nonchalance and apathetic behaviour hasn’t been lost to his fake machoism. Trump has failed on empathy –  even his supporters will agree to this.

Many of us may have seen the funny side of mean rants by Italian politicians threatening people to stay indoors or face dire consequences, and though some may argue that Italy’s population is 15 times that of New Zealand, Ardern’s crisis communication skills are  effortlessly more appealing. Unlike the abusive fatherly figure the Italians probably saw in their angry leaders, the New Zealanders might have recognized a compassionate leader in Ardern, whose sense of calm and control is infectious, whether she is her casual or formal self. Much has been written about leadership and compassionate empathy, and Ardern is a shining example of this kind of empathy, where her words and actions not only convey understanding, but also portray a genuine care. 

In an online message, where she explained the four-stage alert system in New Zealand, Ardern gave us all a lesson in empathy. Her facial expressions and body language didn’t betray her emotions when she said people will be “anxious”, and that there will be “changes to how we live”. Her shoulders dropped and her face pouted when she related to people’s struggles, but then, with an unpretentious smile, she quickly moved to introducing ‘hope’. Ardern reminded her citizens that they were “creative”, “practical” and “community- minded”. It’s not important to be a New-Zealander to appreciate her choice of words, which encourages the viewer to not panic, but think of out-of-the-box solutions. The attributes she highlighted also reminds the viewer to be logical while reading the news and treat their neighbours right. If that wasn’t clear enough, she ended her speech, reiterating that everyone must “look after one another, be strong and be kind”.

You don’t have to be likeable to be empathic, and it still works. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s straight talk  allowed her to identify with her fellow Germans’ restriction on “freedom of travel”. She reignited the sentiment of unity by referring to the nation’s historic unification in the 19th century. The Germans are familiar with Merkel’s childhood, growing up in the DDR, and it was brave of her to go back memory lane to a darker time to find a connection that many people will relate to. A German mediation colleague, Isabel Häntsch, validates this observation, “Merkel didn’t use the moment to dictate orders, there were no rhetoric twists. Her speech showed support and calmness from the government. She empathized that democracy and human rights were compromised with the lockdown, but explained why it was necessary”.

In another intriguing endeavour of engaging with emotions – also known as emotional empathy – Norway’s prime minister Erna Solberg banned adult journalists and decided to get candid at a children-only press conference, telling them “it’s okay to be scared”. When asked how she was boosting her own immune system, she got frank with the kids – “I eat bilberries and try to sleep, not as much as you, but enough, when I am free”. Flanked my ministers of education, family and children, she rallied the youngest generation of her country to join her task force. “By being home you are helping other people not be contaminated and get sick. It is important for those who already have a disease or who are very old,” Solberg said.

Could it be a gender-gap? Psychological, clinical and neurobiological findings endorse that empathic abilities are more developed in women than in men – but does this matter? The machiavellian attitude of Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov or Mexico President Andres Obrador’s reckless leadership is simply astounding from a crisis management perspective. Then again, not all male leaders failed to empathize with their people. Canadian PM Justin Trudeau handed over the baton of “cheerleading” to the celebrities, by tweeting to them with an honest, “can you help?”.

Trudeau addressed the country’s children, in another classic touch of empathy, thanking them for “helping (their) parents work from home, for sacrificing (their) usual day, for doing math class around the kitchen table and for trusting in science.” With his wife in quarantine, his message spilled straight from his heart into every Canadian’s living room. Probably exhausted from the temporary role of a ‘single parent’, he said, “I get it from my kids as well. They’re watching a whole lot more movies, but they miss their friends and at the same time, they’re worried about what’s going on out there in the world and what their future may hold.”

Empathy can also be directed to the cognitive corner of the human brain. Justin Bariso, the author EQ Applied, explain cognitive empathy as the ability to understand how a person feels and what they might be thinking. Cognitive empathy makes us better communicators, because it helps us relay information in a way that best reaches the other person. Ukranian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy wasn’t as witty as his background suggests, though he did show hints of humour, in his otherwise no-nonsense address to the nation. Even in his bluntness, he might have managed to draw a cheeky smile, when he attend to the needs of his fellow citizens, saying, “No one will steal the beaches and no one will take out the sand. The parks will not disappear anywhere. Strolls can wait… And barbecues can cause trouble.”

Choice of words are critical in a crisis situation. Well-chosen language reflects confidence and compassion, whereas a poor choice of vocabulary exposes chaos and carelessness. Barack Obama once lamented that “empathy deficit is a more pressing problem than the federal deficit” and while many people around the world, not just Americans, wish they could indulge in his sharp sense of humour and tactful demeanour, the baton is now passed on to the new generation of female leaders, who share a strong sense of ‘fellow-feeling’. From Taiwan to Switzerland to Iceland, female leaders have put their hand up, spoken their minds,  and worn their hearts on their sleeves. Empathy is effective, when it is sincere; and only time will tell if empathic leaders were more successful in their governance. As Finland’s prime minister Sanna Marin says, “We live in insecure times, and only one day at a time at the moment.”


Jonathan Rodrigues

Jonathan is an advisory board member for MediateIndia! Jonathan Rodrigues is certified mediator, with an academic background in Psychology and Law at Goa University, India. Jonathan graduated from his LL.M. studies in Mediation and Conflict Resolution with Distinction from the University of Strathclyde, UK. He currently leads The Institute of… MORE >

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