In crisis communication, we want to be as helpful to the individual as our knowledge and skills let us, and we can do more than merely filter the individuals crisis color through our blue screen.
In crisis communication, an important part of our goal is to make our skills and abilities available to the individual. We have made our mood or tone available to him in a way that helps him calm down and plan ahead. In the same way, we can make our skills and knowledge available to him in terms of thinking, questioning, considering, and planning. For example, people caught up in the emotions of crisis are usually trying to think about and concentrate on what to do about the situation. Their thoughts and ideas about what to do are generally motivated by a very emotional and somewhat confused notion of what happened. When we ask them What happened? we are asking them to think more clearly and objectively about what caused them to be so upset or confused. The question, What happened? gently encourages them to begin to think about this situation in a more reasoning and systematic way. If they were not so upset, they would probably be figuring out what happened themselves instead of using all their energies thinking about what they are going to do. Our questions, interest, and calm concern gradually nudge them to use their own thinking and planning skills. They start out by using our questions, our way of systematically looking at their situations, and our skills at thinking through problems. Our skills and knowledge are available to them, and they use these as a means of getting in touch with their own skills and knowledge. Basically, we become a part of their communication process, asking questions, giving focus to problems, helping them to be more systematic.
We have all had conversations with someone who goes into great detail as he talks. He wants, for example, to tell us that he is unable to keep a date he has with us. The short version of his story is that something unexpected came up. He calls up to cancel our meeting. The conversation starts: I got a call yesterday from my mother. She hasnt been feeling well. It probably is a recurrence of an old back injury she received in an automobile accident several years ago. She was driving her car past a school, when a school bus backed out into her lane of traffic. Fifteen minutes later, and after having completely exhausted our patience, he tells us that his mother has a doctors appointment, and he has to take her. That is why he will not be able to meet with us.
In many conversations, people tell us more than we want to know, while people in crisis have the opposite tendency to tell us far less than we need to know. A fairly complex set of circumstances has led to a crisis. The individual is very familiar with the circumstances and is experiencing crisis. At that point, he is oriented to getting himself out of the crisis. He might start by saying, What can I do? I have to do something. If this is the first time we have talked with him, our first thought will usually be to ask what happened about which something needs to be done. Frequently, it is difficult to get people to move past their emotional reaction and their intense focus on I have to do something.
Helen, age twenty-three, starts her communication in a very intense, almost overwhelming way. You have to help me. I dont know what to doits terrible. I dont know how I ever got myself in such a mess. Im going to have to quit my job and move. Theres no other choice. I just have to. I cant stay around. I cant face people. Theres just no way I can deal with this. [You ask in a slightly excited tone: What happened?] I cant tell you. I cant tell anyone. If anyone ever found out about this, wellI justI cant tell you. I cant tell anyone. [You say: I cant imagine what would seem so terrible. What could happen that would make you want to quit your job and feel it would be awful if anyone found out about it?] Its so terrible. I dont see how I could be so stupid. Its horrible! Im so stupid. Now everything is ruined, everything is ruined. [You say: Sometimes bad things happen, but that doesnt mean that we are stupid.] You dont know what happened. You dont know how really bad, stupid, horrible it really is. [You ask: Would you tell me what happened if I guess?] NoyesI dont know. Go ahead. [You ask: Did you get raped or something like that?] Oh, my God, no! Its nothing like that. Wow! That would really be terrible. I dont know what I would do if something like that ever happened to me. [You ask: If its not so bad as that, can you tell me a little bit about what it has to do with?] Its really hard. I cant tell you. I dont know. I have to tell someone. I dont know what to do. What should I do? [You say: I dont know. Lets think about it. Can you tell me what happened?] Well, you were sort of right, but nothing really happened. Its a man. A guy I work with. I let him take me for a drink after work one evening, and on the way homewell, things got a little out of hand. Nothing really happened, but he called this evening, and my husband answered the phone. I think he knows something is going on. I dont know why I let it happen. It was so stupid and dumb and terrible. I want to tell my husband its nothing and that nothing happened. Im afraid, though. I just know he would leave.
Sometimes it is necessary to guess or follow hunches when helping people express the content of their crises. These guesses and hunches are based on our understanding of people, their situations, the interactions between them and their situations, and our understanding of the most likely causes and kinds of conflicts in those interactions. When people are having extreme anxiety, guilt, embarrassment, and apprehension about anyone finding out what happened, it is important to note that the crisis frequently has a sexual component. Think, for example, about your biggest secret. What single incident or episode in your life would you be least willing to have published in your local newspaper? Odds are that it has something to do with sex or sexual behavior. Even if this is not true for you, it is true for most people. When people are having extreme difficulty getting up the courage to tell you what happened, then it is a good bet that a sexual incident of some kind is involved.