With many working professionals finding themselves in extraordinarily tough circumstances in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, it is easy to fall prey to anxiety and fear. In addition to working from home (and in many cases, juggling childcare responsibilities), finance and accounting professionals may be confronting reduced salaries, job uncertainty, the unenviable task of delivering bad news to clients, and many other potential challenges. Yet there is arguably one important task that every finance professional has to master as the global health crisis unfolds: the practice of empathy.

“The ability to step into someone else’s shoes, be aware of their feelings, and understand their needs is more important now than ever before,” said Vanessa Addison, a performance and growth coach based in South Africa. “Empathy is the ability to understand and be aware of, or co-experience, the feelings and thoughts of others. When people feel seen, heard, and understood, it builds trust, and hence strong, healthy relationships are built and maintained.”

Addison and Julia Kerr Henkel, managing director at Lumminos Coaching, an executive coaching consultancy based in South Africa, offer the following tips on how finance professionals can become more empathetic while under pressure.

Listen attentively. According to Addison, listening is one of the most effective ways to demonstrate empathy towards others.

“Most of us don’t truly listen to others,” she noted. “We tend to interrupt, judging what others say, … or constantly want to fix or solve the problem.”

These bad habits can become even more pronounced during online meetings and virtual chats. Make sure to focus clearly on the call and avoid letting your attention wander. Practise active listening techniques such as briefly summarising key points and asking questions to demonstrate interest and insight. Keep distractions in the workspace to a minimum to make sure that you are fully engaged.

“To stay present with people during online meetings, make sure you keep constant eye contact,” Addison advised. “If you are unable to be fully present for the time that you are with someone on an online call, politely ask for the meeting to be rescheduled.”

Develop self-compassion. “You can’t give what you don’t have,” Kerr Henkel cautioned. “Self-compassion is the ability to speak to — and treat oneself — in the same manner you would to a dear friend or loved one.”

For example, an act of self-compassion could be to commit to practising empathy and compassion daily, knowing that at some point you won’t get it “right”, and still choose to commit to getting back up, circling back, and trying again. Self-compassion can also include the daily practice of identifying negative thoughts and anxious mind chatter. Learn how to identify and shift negative thought patterns with movement, deep breathing, or short meditation breaks.

Be mindful. During stressful periods, our mind tends to jump constantly from one thought to another and from worry to worry, resulting in a restless feeling. That anxiety prevents us from being as fully empathetic as we’d like.

“Take a few minutes each day to write down your thoughts and your tasks for the day,” Addison said. “By becoming aware of your thoughts, you will gain an understanding of what is making you so impatient or annoyed. The benefit of slowing down to listen to your thoughts will help to calm the mind.”

Check in (often) with those around you. This should include colleagues, team members, customers, clients, stakeholders, family members, suppliers, etc. Schedule weekly check-in calls or meetings — and start each virtual meeting with a few anchoring questions. For example, you can ask: “What is top of mind for you right now?” or “What might support look like from me or us?”

“With deep respect and curiosity, enquire into what is going on for others and then really listen carefully,” Kerr Henkel advised. “While discussions around fears and feelings may be deeply uncomfortable territory to step into (especially when you’re struggling yourself), it’s important to spend a reasonable amount of time there.”

If you don’t, Kerr Henkel said, you will soon find yourself spending an unreasonable amount of time dealing with “unproductive behaviours” and destructive patterns, which are often triggered when people’s fears and vulnerabilities are not addressed in a compassionate and clear manner.

Become comfortable with the uncomfortable. When we are pushed outside of our comfort zone, we may get impatient or upset about the circumstances, Addison warned.

“For example, the idea of suddenly having to convert all of your face-to-face meetings to online sessions may make you feel uncomfortable,” she explained. “To overcome the discomfort of having online meetings, I find it helpful to say to myself, ‘This is merely uncomfortable, not intolerable.’”

Build your resilience and find ways to get outside of your comfort zone more often. For example, take on a new stretch assignment or enrol in an online course that challenges your brain to think differently.

“Keep in mind that your growth lies on the other end of discomfort,” Addison said.

 Jessica Hubbard is a freelance writer based in South Africa. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.