Recap: Happy Hour with Sheila Callaham

Recap: Happy Hour with Sheila Callaham

Happy Hour Series with Sheila Callaham

Recap: 3 Communication Tips During a Crisis

Last Thursday, we had the privilege of having Sheila Callaham as our guest on illume hire’s Happy Hour series. Sheila is the Executive Director and Board Chair of Age Equity Alliance.  AEA is an organization partnering with companies, communities, and government agencies to build age equity in the workplace. Sheila is also a contributor to Forbes, writing exclusively for the Diversity and Inclusion channel. She also served on The Conference Board’s Council of U.S. Diversity & Inclusion Executives, and the board of the North Carolina Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. I’ve paraphrased the event below.

The theme discussed was 3 Communicating Tips During A Crisis:

  • What it Takes to Communicate Effectively
  • How to Approach Difficult Conversations


Why should a focus on communications be important when there are so many other things we need to be thinking about? And what about this topic is especially important for midlife career professionals?

  • If you have good and consistent communication practices, it’s going to help when issues arise - no matter what age you happen to be.
  • When you’re under stress, your body tends to react in a “fight or flight” response so when you name it and recognize it, that can help in communication efforts.
  • Knowing ahead of time how your body responds to highly stressful situations will help to mitigate an inappropriate vocal response.
  • Know your end goal with the other person and practice it.
  • Trying to recover from a bad communication experience is much harder than planning for it ahead of time.
  • What can we do when we’re in that situation?  Take a deep breath and ask permission to come back to the conversation later.  If you’re so stressed and can feel your heart pumping and body responding, then you know it’s time to step away from the conversation.

What are the three most important factors in successful communications?

  • Timing of the conversation is huge so consider where that person’s mental space might be at that moment. Is it better to approach a discussion later in the day or early in the morning?
  • Ask powerful questions because when you do so, it gives the other person a voice. And this makes the other person feel respected and it can build trust.
  • Focus on the goal of connection and ask powerful meaningful questions
  • Understand where their resistance is coming from in order to learn more about the other person’s viewpoint.
  • Sometimes people resist because they don’t understand the purpose or where you’re coming from in a situation.
  • If there’s informational disconnect, take a harder look at that to help resolve it and gain more understanding.
  • Ask questions like “What part of this do you know feel comfortable with?” and “What would make you feel better about this?”
  • Another reason why people resist is “emotional resistance” and this can happen in change management.  When change happens, it can be stressful and the whole idea is to articulate why it’s going to be better on the other side.
  • Realize there’s something called “judgemental resistance” which is caused by a lack of trust and ask yourself why this may be the case. If you think about the political environment now, people will not listen to the other side. When things like that happen, it’s great to ask more questions like “What would it take to get you on board?”  That is a good time to bring in stakeholders to help communicate.
  • Sheila talked about tone of voice and how people adopt their communication style based on where they work. Her example was working for the military and when she moved into the private sector, she was told she didn’t need to communicate in a way that was similar to what she had been doing at her military job.

How can we get better at approaching “difficult conversations”?

Sheila worked for 15 years in pharma at GSK. She went through a training course on “constructive contention”.  When it’s uncomfortable, people want to avoid it. Many people have not experienced a constructive contentious conversation when there’s an agreeable outcome. The key is to NOT run away. Stick with it and ask questions and be calm.

In business, there is often someone responsible for “crisis communications.” How can we leverage what they do for personal crisis conversations as a professional?

  • In corporations, it’s all about reputation management.
  • For crisis communication to be successful, you need to to focus on four things: 1) Quick response 2) Being authentic in your response 3) Take responsibility 4) Be part of the solution
  • Don’t let things fester. Talk about it.
  • Sheila cited corporate communication examples.  British Petroleum oil was one example of a slow response and not being accountable as a bad example of crisis communication.  The CEO was defensive about the explosion. They did not have an emergency plan and they even admitted they didn’t have a plan. People were angry about their response and 12 people had died. They did not respond quickly at all. They had completely missed out on communicating properly.
  • Sheila cited Tylenol as an example of positive crisis communication.  Someone had tampered with Tylenol and inserted cyanide and as a result, seven people had died. They recalled $100M worth of product, they got the FBI involved to find the culprit and acted quickly and authentically. They lost loads of market share but they were honest with the public and took responsibility.   

Communication is more than just the words we use. What other things do we need to be thinking about how to ensure successful communications?

  • Tone of voice is important
  • Body language is important so if you need to have a hard conversation then it’s important to ask for a video call so that you can see how they respond.

We discussed how we should communicate during challenging times. What are some things we should NOT do that we need to think about?

  • Don’t respond when emotional
  • Ask for time to reflect and to come back to the situation to discuss logically
  • Create space to think about the conversation and where you want it to go
  • Remain calm
  • Be positive
  • Your goal is to help so articulate your goal and desire for a positive outcome

 It’s hard to judge how a conversation went. How can we really know if it was successful or not?

  • Repeat what was said to gain clarity
  • Be committed to the outcome.
  • Trust in yourself that when you communicate, it’s successful
  • Ask them, “How do you think our meeting went?”
  • If it’s a contentious meeting in a team setting, go back to them and say, “What could I have done differently?”  There is trust that is built when managers admit their mistakes and go back and ask for feedback on how they could improve the situation.
  • In a conversation, you always want to be a good listener.  Listen fully and try to make the conversation 50/50.


Other tips:

When/if people talk over you, how should you handle it?

  • Say, “I have something I’d like to contribute” or “Will there be a point I can talk?”  
  • After the person has finished interrupting, you could say, “As I was saying... “

How can we communicate better in a Slack world?

  • If someone is combative, maybe don’t respond at all
  • Remember that you don’t have to have the last word
  • Be curious about others and where they are coming from
  • Make a phone call to reach out to them instead of Slack or Zoom to gain more clarity
  • Know that if you feel resistant to someone else’s idea, there’s a learning opportunity there and an opportunity to grow.


Where to Find Sheila Callaham’s work:

 Age Equity Alliance


Sheila's Twitter

Forbes – Diversity Equity & Inclusion + Aging Workforce articles by Sheila Callaham

Sheila’s Communication Tips: 9 Communications Tips by Sheila