“It Is What It Is?” Why empathy and storytelling are essential parts of crisis communication.
“It is what it is” is an ambiguous phrase that smacks slightly of Zen philosophy, making it a versatile point of emphasis or a verbal shrug lying just outside the realm of meaning. That said, here are two possible interpretations for you:
1. Your favourite coffee mug smashes on the floor. You sigh and say “It is what it is,” meaning that there’s nothing you can do except calm down, clean up the mess and move on with dignity.
2. Your five-year-old daughter insists on wearing leggings and a dress with clashing floral patterns at the same time. You bury your best Anna Wintour impression and say “It is what it is.” If anyone can pull that combination off, your daughter can.
To me, these variations are harmless enough, but there is a third use of the phrase, often by people in business and government, that strikes me as a concise form of surrender. Think of a bureaucrat saying “It is what it is” when explaining why he can’t make exceptions to an inflexible rule or why we must tolerate inefficient processes without question.
Full disclosure: I hate the phrase, with a passion. In the years that I have worked as a teacher, trainer and coach, I have learned that I do my job best by sticking to the hope that things can get better. I cannot say to a student, “Winston, because of your stutter I don’t think you’ll ever become a world-famous orator. It is what it is.” Instead, I try to focus on sharing ideas and tools that give people certainty when they confront a challenge.
Teaching, like leadership, encourages you to think about other people more than yourself, and it forces you to find positive ways to move when all the roads seem blocked.
So, you can imagine my surprise when President Donald Trump, in a recent interview with AXIOS reporter Jonathon Swan, used that phrase when facing questions about the high number of fatalities in the US due to COVID-19, over 180,000 people and counting.
As the nation’s communicator in-chief, the president needs to remember that potential voters treat public speaking as shorthand for leadership, especially during a crisis. If I had his ear, I would insist that recognizing the grief of Americans whose parents and children have died due to the pandemic is a powerful gesture, not a show of weakness.
When I teach a business storytelling course in Singapore or another country, I reinforce that one of the most effective ways to demonstrate empathy is to share a personal story. By relating moments when you felt vulnerable, you are showing people that you can connect with them on an emotional level, even if your experiences are not a perfect match for theirs.
While President Trump hasn’t lost loved ones to the pandemic, he knows what it feels like to lose someone close, like his younger brother Robert. Without allowing his personal story to dominate the conversation, he could speak about how he feels before connecting these emotions back to people affected by the virus. He could also use this intimate understanding of loss to map out the specific actions he is taking to combat the pandemic.
To me, it is about offering simple steps we can all take to connect with people and make them feel less alone.
In Michelle Obama’s speech for the Democratic National Convention, she spoke with candour about her experiences as First Lady, using them to outline the qualities she feels a president needs to be a successful leader. Beyond a mastery of complex issues, she emphasized that a leader must show empathy, the ability to think beyond oneself to unite people in a crisis.
Near the end of her speech, Obama pointedly used the same phrase as part of her assessment of Trump’s ability to lead a broken nation.
At this point, supporters of the president might say just because he said “It is what it is” doesn’t mean he is incapable of empathy. Several politicians, including the African-American senator Tim Scott, sought to highlight the president’s caring credentials during their speeches at the Republican National Convention. It’s interesting, however, that Trump is relying on his political allies and family to create a more humane vision of his presidency. Meanwhile, he seems less capable of achieving this himself.
On April 27th 2020, the New York Times published an analysis of the 260,000 words Trump had spoken about COVID-19 up to that point. Of all the utterances he made, only a quarter of them displayed empathy or appealed to national unity, while the majority were self-congratulations based on exaggerations or falsehoods. Before you say “Fake news!” the analysis in the report is exhaustive, and includes actual transcripts and fact-checked assertions.
This report highlights the overall trend in Trump’s communication with the public in the past four years. By now, we can see he is more likely to boast about himself and blame others when he speaks. He is less likely to take personal responsibility for failures or bring his nation together in the face of a pandemic, racial unrest and economic hardship.
While many swinging voters might have forgiven Trump’s relentless showmanship and elastic relationship with the truth pre-COVID-19, there is mounting evidence that Americans are growing weary of his leadership. In the lead-up to the presidential election four years ago, the polling between Trump and Hillary Clinton was much tighter than the convincing lead Democrat Joe Biden has today.
That said, I don’t feel comfortable predicting who will win in November. In the past four years, Trump may have struggled with empathy, but he has shown a preternatural gift for self-preservation.
And as the torchbearer of American conservatism, Trump has an army of supporters, enablers and lawyers to help him explain his way out of provocations, missteps and mistakes. His loyal base will have no trouble looking beyond them if he continues to lower taxes, loosen environmental regulations and stem gun control.
However, just like you and me, Trump needs to watch his words to preserve his credibility as a leader in a crisis. Sharing a personal story with genuine emotion rather than vague platitudes is a far more human choice.
It pains me to say it, but it is what it is.
Paul Falzon is Director of Think.Story.Speak Pte Ltd, a Singapore based company that specializes in business storytelling courses and sharpening communication skills.