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Pro-Tip for Communicating with People in Crisis: Why Should They Talk to You?

The start of a crisis communication session is where the most is on the line. In the beginning, you are facing an agitated person. Their bloodstream is polluted with cortisol and adrenaline; they are the only person in the world who truly knows this situation.

Here are a few pro tips for establishing the basis for rapport, which is the mutual respect required for you to influence their decision-making positively.

The person in crisis often says things that don't have anything to do with why they are in crisis. We understand the crisis brain approaches problem-solving emotionally rather than rationally. A person under the influence of crisis-brain thinking will tend to view you as a threat, or at least someone who will tell them what they're doing is wrong. This perception will affect the person in crisis's perception of what they hear you say and see you do.

A way to work with this negative perception of you is to avoid offering ideas or solutions that the person in crisis has yet to mention themselves.

Think of it like this. I'm a person in crisis, and you are the crisis communicator. Picture a table between us. Anything I say is put on that table. You can assume that the topic is all right to discuss because I (the person in crisis) put it on the table, and we both can see it. If you are listening for content rather than listening to respond, you are paying attention to what I have put on the table and using it to inform my next question.

Person in crisis: "I bet my family called you. They are always trying to fix me".

Crisis communicator: "It sounds like your family is very involved in your life, but sometimes their help doesn't help."

Person in crisis: "Damn straight, you got that right," or hopefully some other rapport-building response.

If we let the internal problem solver inside us take over the interaction, it might sound more like this:

Person in crisis: "I bet my family called you. They're always trying to fix me."

Inappropriate problem solver: "Maybe if you start taking your medication again, getting along with your family might be easier."

Problem-solving responses like this are tempting. We all want to appear competent. Here's the problem. You need to understand that the person in crisis probably has not disclosed the real reason they are in crisis. At best, they will feel like you're not listening to them. At worst, they will respond to you as if you called them stupid for not understanding the simple solution to their problem.

A better method is to continue to use questions the person in crisis is unlikely to see as blaming, interrogative, or tactical. If you do this, the person in crisis will likely put more valuable information on our invisible table for us to consider. At the same time, the cortisol and adrenaline are working their way through the system, resulting in a corresponding lowering of emotions and increased rationality.

Join us at the WSHNA Conference in Boise, Idaho, in May. Let's get together and discuss your crisis intervention adventures.

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