Crisis Communications

You respond to a scene where it is reported that a man has taken his own life with a handgun in his condominium bedroom shortly after his wife and kids return home from a weekend away. When you arrive at the condominium complex, there are several people standing outside, and officers from your police department are conducting the investigation inside the family condominium.

You walk up to where people are standing outside and an officer points out the wife whose husband had reportedly taken his own life. She is easy to identify, because she is covered with blood, and she is standing there in a daze. You calmly introduce yourself to her and she turns to you and immediately asks you, “Where did he go?”

She said that an EMT examining her husband told her, “I am sorry but your husband is gone.” You take a deep breath, and as gently as you can, you look her in the eyes and say: “I’m very sorry to tell you this, but your husband is dead. I am very sorry for your loss.”

Upon hearing this, the wife starts to scream and pound on your chest and the walls outside the condominium. After riding out the strong emotional reaction with her you are then able to get her cleaned up and attend to her at the scene and then later on, at your police department. There are a number of lessons from this scenario.

The most general thing to learn is that talking to someone in crisis is different than talking to someone who is not experiencing the aftermath of a critical incident. In dealing with someone in crisis, language is nearly always negative and distorted. Following a crisis, there are usually lots of rumors, misunderstanding, and misinformation. Because people are very upset, perceptions are distorted and it is hard to reason with them.

Immediately following a crisis, a person is most likely experiencing a fight, flight, or freeze reaction, and their cognitive function is diminished. When a person is experiencing a fight, flight, or freeze reaction, blood is diverted to their major muscle groups and more primitive portions of their brains to prepare them for fight or flight. In some cases, the psychological trauma of the experienced incident causes a person to temporarily freeze.

The woman whose husband took his own life didn’t fully understand when the EMT had told her that her husband was “gone” because she was clearly in fight, flight, or freeze mode. In the time immediately following the incident, she was not very capable of abstract thought. She didn’t really fully understand until concrete language was used in a gentle, compassionate manner. Consider the following when assisting someone in crisis.

Be mindful of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Following a serious critical incident, you want to first address that person’s physical and basic psychological needs. Make him/her feel safe. A person who has just experienced a traumatic event needs to be assured that he/she is safe and can trust the person or persons who are responding to him/her. Are they hot or cold? If it’s cold outside and the person you are helping needs to warm up, offer a blanket, a coat, and perhaps warm shelter where he/she can sit down.

Here’s a word of warning about offering to let a person or family sit in the back of a squad car. If you offer them a place to sit in a squad, be sure to turn the squad’s radio down. An officer reported that someone in their department had offered a family whose house was burning down a place to sit and keep warm in the back of his squad car. One of the family members was still missing at the time.

The body was discovered in the charred remains of the home, and this information was communicated via police and fire radio. Unfortunately, the officer who had offered the warmth and shelter of his squad had forgotten to turn down his squad’s radio after ushering the family into the car, and the family heard about the death of their loved one over the radio.

If they need help making phone calls to contact other family, friend, or clergy, offer to help them make those calls. If it is possible, sometimes offering them a bottle of water or a warm cup of coffee is a helpful gesture.

When speaking to the person in distress, be self-aware. If you feel nervous and the heart is pounding in your chest, welcome to the human race, that is natural and normal! Take a deep breath and say to yourself, “Slow it down and soften it up.”

When we find ourselves in stressful situations, there is a tendency for the pitch of our voice to be higher, and we tend to speak more rapidly, so slow your speech and actions down and soften up your voice when talking to someone who is very upset. People who are upset often key on how they experience you, and if you seem calm, that can help begin to calm them down as well.

Use Mirroring techniques in how you physically engage them, as well as how you listen to them. If a person is sitting down, kneel or sit down at their level so that you can maintain an engaged presence with good eye contact. If the person wants to stand, stand with them. Although you might want to encourage them to sit down, while upset, they might want to stand or walk back and forth.

In order for that 

distressed person to feel safe, I have found that it is often good to sit or stand at a slight angle to them, rather than squaring shoulders and being directly in front of the person. To sit or stand squarely in front of someone (especially males), can feel confrontational at times, and you want them to feel safe in your presence.

Sit or stand in a respectful manner that expresses to the person you are helping that you are interested in them and what they have to say. Sitting or standing with arms crossed, with little eye contact, and frequent interruptions and glances at your watch aren’t at all helpful to the person in distress.

It is also helpful to develop good listening skills. People need to be heard. People in crisis need to feel validated, that someone is listening to them, and using mirroring tools can be especially effective to create a psychological alignment or rapport with the person you are seeking to help.

When listening to the distressed person, use open- and close-ended questions strategically. To establish facts and rapport, ask the person a close-ended question that only requires a simple response. Use open-ended questions such as How, What or When to encourage them to tell you more of the “story.” Be careful in asking the “why” question as it might be experienced as confrontational and make the person feel unsafe in your presence.

So use the “why” question in a gentle tone of voice or ask it in another manner. Example: Instead of asking someone why he/she reacted the way he/she did to a given situation ask it in a less direct way such as, 

“Can you help me understand what was going on when you reacted in the manner you did?”

Use little conversation encouragers when someone is talking to you to show him/her that you are interested. Sounds like “Hmm” or “Umm” or “OK” or “Oh” indicate to the person that you are listening to them. Encouragers like “Can you tell me more about that?” can be useful to encourage the distressed person to talk.

Paraphrasing and repeating back what you hear the person in distress telling you can be a powerful tool. Restating back what you hear the person saying not only indicates that you are listening but that paraphrase restatement can also be used to clarify what that person is telling you. Do not overuse this technique, however, as the person you are seeking to help might think you sound like a parrot.

Related to this is a mirroring technique in which you seek to name the emotional state that you perceive the distressed person to be in. If the distressed person is angry or sad or lonely, etc., it is sometimes helpful in establishing a rapport to reflect your perception of them.

The use of silence can also be a very useful tool. A person may be too upset to talk. If so, with his/her permission, sit or stand with him/her and don’t feel compelled to say things or ask questions. That person may remember your willingness to sit with him/her quietly and compassionately far longer than any words you might offer.

Never underestimate the power of your personal and caring presence. It is perhaps the most powerful psychological first aid tool you have at your disposal.

Avoid the use of clichés. Sometimes there is a tendency to offer clichés in the hope that they are helpful to the person in distress. They are not. I have come to suspect that offering clichés is really an indicator of our own discomfort in being with another person in distress, and in an attempt to help or “fix” his/her distress, we find ourselves sometimes reaching into the “cliché toolbox” for something to make the distressed person feel better.

If the person you are responding to following a seriously critical incident has a need to tell you his/her “story” of the incident or the loved one who has died, listen to the story. Listen with the intention of understanding him/her. If you are with that person for any length of time, he/she may repeat that story again. Listen to it again. For in each retelling of the story, the distressed person gains a bit more control over his/her life.

A commonly used expression in seeking to help others following a crisis is to not let out of Pandora’s box what you can’t put back in it. In other words, don’t go poking and prodding another person to talk if he/she doesn’t feel like it. Remember, we are providing psychological first aid. We are there to help stop the psychological bleeding. If, at any point, you sense that the person you are seeking to help isn’t responding or doing well, gently refer them to EMS for further evaluation.

Do not underestimate the power of your presence. Always remember to “slow it down and soften it up” when talking with a person in crisis.


Greg Young is the Chaplain, FBI Milwaukee Division; Chaplain, Germantown, WI Police Department; Debriefer Milwaukee Fire Department; ILEETA Trainer; ICISF Trainer. He has responded to Critical Incident Nationally and Regionally and is a Crisis Response Specialist.

Published in Law and Order, Apr 2014

Rating : 7.3

Related Products



Crisis Communications

Posted on : Apr 17 at 3:49 AM By Mike Harling


Thanks for sharing your comments. Sometime ago in my law enforcement career and now as an international training instructor; I have learned alot.
Why? because I listen alot.

Close ...