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
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
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
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
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
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