Leading in Difficult Times

November 16, 2023

I’m Sonja.
Leadership Specialist and Creator of The Expansion Practice. Also a travel enthusiast, dog lover, fanatic for all the books (on all the subjects), and an advocate for intuition.

As I’ve been holding space for others these past few weeks, and creating space for myself, it is abundantly clear that many of us are struggling. It is not unusual to find ourselves in various states of nervous system dysregulation, meaning we may be experiencing increased irritability, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, or trouble focusing. We may be feeling overwhelmed or easily triggered by everyday situations.  

When we do find ourselves or those we know behaving out of character, whether withdrawn or snappy, angry or depressed, trying to stay busy or procrastinating, these are all signs that our nervous system is (mostly subconsciously) attempting to support us.

These are all natural responses to unnatural events in the world right now.

There is no need to judge or shame ourselves for feeling or behaving the way we are. Rather, we can use these experiences as cues to slow down and check in with ourselves. We can see them as signals to feel into our discomfort – rather than try to think or analyze our way through it – which allows our feelings to move through us and dissipate.

According to Harvard brain scientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, ninety seconds is all it takes to identify an emotion and allow it to dissipate while we simply notice it. Ninety seconds. But because we are not taught to be with our feelings, we think about them instead and tend to ruminate, which only prolongs the process. Rumination refers to obsessively revisiting the same thought or theme over and over again. It can become a vicious cycle. Sound familiar?

It is difficult to do business as usual with all of this playing out around and within us. Business is not ‘as usual.’ Whether we are leading an organization, a team, a family, or ourselves right now, I invite us to acknowledge that and adapt accordingly.

How we do that as leaders is less complicated than you may think.

Before I completed my bachelor’s degree in psychology, I volunteered as a crisis line worker for a 24-hour suicide prevention hotline. I wanted some hands-on experience with the field I was considering going into.

Contrary to my assumption going in, I didn’t need to solve anyone’s problems. I didn’t need to be an expert in 38 different areas. I also didn’t need to worry that I wouldn’t be able to cope with the weight of other people’s pain. In the majority of cases, all that was needed was to meet people where they were at, be present without judgment, and reflect back what I was hearing. Empathy went a tremendously long way.

It was a revelation to me as I listened to someone go from deep pain and despair to a calm, more resourced state. The power of that transformation came from feeling connected with and listened to by another human being. That was what they needed. That was what supported them to take their next steps.

I’ve always described what I learned through my crisis line training as how to make people feel seen, heard, and valued. It is hands down the very best leadership training I have ever received, and I continue to use these skills in my work and life today.

Here are some of the ways I’ve learned that we can support each other and those we’re leading right now:

Start with Yourself

How are you feeling? Can you be present for what is showing up for you. Be aware of how you’re feeling, where your energy is at, and what your body is trying to communicate. Take some time to check in with yourself first. If you are in a state of dysregulation, you will share that with those around you through a process called co-regulation.

When we are in dysregulation, we also cannot access our intuition. We are more likely to think our fear or our ego is our intuition. Just one more reason to give ourselves the time and space to slow down so we can check in with ourselves first.


Acknowledge the elephant in the room. Acknowledge what is happening in the world and that you are aware this is going to impact everyone in different ways. It will be triggering or activating for some. It may cause others to shut down or withdraw.

Acknowledging is a simple yet powerful tool. It can take unspoken tension out of a situation or environment. It can also support your people to begin to understand why they feel the way they do.

When we are in dysregulation and stuck in our overthinking minds, it can become much more difficult to be self-aware and connect the dots for ourselves. By giving voice to it, you normalize very natural responses to abnormal, untenable circumstances. There is power in giving voice to it.

Listen First

Be present for how your people are showing up, be they at work, in your home, in your interactions, and so on. Can you become more aware and in tune with what may be showing up for them? Can you invite them to share that with you?

By being present and listening first, you allow others to feel seen and heard. You don’t need to have solutions or answers, just be there for them. Also, when we are in a more regulated state ourselves, our energy can support others to move closer to that state and away from their own dysregulation.

Allow People to Feel How They’re Feeling

Allow people to feel how they’re feeling without trying to fix or change them. Give them an opportunity to share how they’re doing but don’t make it mandatory.


Don’t be afraid to check in with how people are doing. Listening matters. Being present for someone else is a tremendous gift. When people feel valued, you build rapport and trust throughout your organization. That will help you move through this and continue to do business… but not business as usual.

If this makes you uncomfortable, please know you do not have to be the one checking in. It’s okay if it’s not your skill set, strength, or desire. Step back and bring in others who have the ability to support team members. Being a strong leader is knowing when it’s best to bring someone else in for the role that is needed. And we are only talking about informal, interpersonal communication here, not professional psychological support.

Provide Resources

Since most of us are not equipped or trained to offer our people professional counseling support, make sure you have resources available for those who may need them. That can be as simple as a 24-hour crisis line number, information about how to access counseling support through your health plan or extended health, and making a list of free mental health resources available that are easy to source in your community through a Google or ChatGPT search.


These are extraordinary times, and we have an opportunity as leaders to offer some simple, effective support to our people. No one is immune to difficult feelings, especially under such confounding circumstances. Why not let that be our starting point? Rather than pretending we can all simply leave these parts of ourselves at home, let’s acknowledge they impact us all, regardless of where we are, and lead accordingly. As we do so, we build resilience in ourselves and our people which in turn creates more safety, connection, and cohesion in our organizations.

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