The development of this interaction model of crisis communication shows content and crisis feeling as separate but interrelated aspects of the communication loop. In actual crisis situations, however, it may be helpful to think about content and feeling as parts of a message clarification process. The individual has ideas and feelings that he wants to communicate to us. He somehow puts these into verbal and nonverbal messages that we have to interpret. How do we go about decoding or interpreting his messages? We want to know what he means and how he feels. As we begin to communicate with him, then, we might deal with each message by first clarifying the meaning and feelings. We could say to him, I hear you saying that things happened this way. We then restate what we understood him to have said. Having done that, we say, If that is what you meant, it seems like you feel this way about it, and tell him how we think he feels. He has given us a message, and we have responded by telling him what we understood him to have meant and how we think he feels about it. This helps him think about what he meant and what was involved in the situation as well as getting him to focus specifically on his feelings. If we have accurately understood and read his feelings, he will go on to give us another message. If not, he will clarify his meaning or feeling. With each message, we can go through this process of restating the meaning and feeling, letting him clarify and restate if we were wrong, and continuing back and forth until we really do understand. More importantly, this process lets him know that we understand. To push the point one step farther, we can see that the process of message clarification helps him think more clearly about what is going on and helps him clarify his own feelings. He has used our skill and ability to enhance his own ability to understand and think through his thoughts and feelings. To summarize the idea of message clarification, we want to be sure that we understand both the meaning and feeling dimensions of each message. We accomplish this by restating the message in our own words and asking the individual if we have accurately caught his meaning. In addition, we reflect back to him our understanding of his feelings about the particular incident, person, situation, and so on. This gives him an opportunity to see if we really do understand how he feels. If we have misread his feelings, he can clarify them for us. We will continue the process of restating and reflecting the meaning and feeling of the message until the individual agrees that we really do understand what he meant and how he feels. We will not go on to another subject or question until we are sure that we really do understand what is being said now. I hear you saying , and you seem to feel . I hear you saying , but Im not sure how you feel about it. You seem to feel , but Im not sure what you think about it. If we continue the process of message clarification until we understand both the meaning and the feeling of the message, we have reached a point of honest, informed empathy. This level of understanding and empathy is the major goal of crisis communication.
We gently and persistently clarify each message from the individual until our understanding of his meaning and feeling is the same as his. We are then sincerely and honestly able to say to him, I hear you, I understand you, and I care.
In our day-to-day relationships with other people, we occasionally feel that we are talking with someone but not communicating with them. The process of message clarification is an extremely useful technique in such situations. In crisis intervention, however, message clarification is critical if we are to avoid misunderstanding or the feeling that we are not communicating with the individual. With our family, friends, business associates, and so on, there is an equal and shared responsibility to be sure that we do, in fact, communicate. In crisis intervention, the responsibility for clear and meaningful communication is ours. This example of message clarification may seem very stilted, and you may think you would never use this technique in any kind of interaction, especially not in a discussion with a person in crisis. Nevertheless, you should at least try it out the next time you get the feeling that you are not communicating.
Message: Im sixteen now, and I dont think you should keep treating me like a baby.
Response: I hear you saying that you think I treat you like a baby and that it makes you pretty angry.
Message: Yes, it makes me mad! You act as if I should account to you for every breath I take and for every minute of my day.
Response: I hear you saying that I act like you have to account to me for everything you do or think, and you feel like thats a bit much.
Message: Its too much. I dont know where you think you get off. Im old enough to make my own decisions and to decide about my own life.
Response: It sounds like you are saying that you do not think that I have any right to tell you what to do or to have any control over you, and when I try to tell you what to do or to control you, you feel like I am pushing and interfering with you life.
Message: I didnt say that at all. I didnt say that you dont have any right to tell me what to do. I just said that I think you treat me like a baby. You want to decide everything for me. Its not that you dont have any rights. Its just that I think that you can carry it too far, and that makes me pretty mad.
Response: I misunderstood. I thought you were saying that I didnt have any right to tell you what to do or to try to set some kind of limits. Im glad we are talking about this. Your point seems to be that you think I carry things too far, and thats what makes you mad.
Message: Yes. You just carry it too far. I dont think I should be allowed to do everything I want to, but I do think I should have some freedom and some right to make my own decisions.
Response: You seem to feel a little better now that youre finally getting your message through to me. I guess the problem is where to draw the line. Our disagreement is about where I do have the right to tell you what to do and where I dont. Would you agree with that?
Message: Yes. I think we should really get that straightened out.
Response: I agree. I think we should get it straightened out too. What ideas do you have?
Message: I dont know. If I told you, youd just get mad again.
Response: I hear you say that you dont know, but I think you probably have some ideas about it. The problem seems to be that you dont think I will listen. You figure Ill just get mad about it.
Message: Thats about it.
Response: Im sorry I have made you feel that way. I didnt realize it, but I guess I must have a habit of getting angry when you try to tell me what you think and feel. That really makes me feel bad. Would you be willing to try to tell me what kinds of rules and limits you think would be fair? If you will try to tell me, I will try to listen without getting angry.
Message: Ill try, but I dont think itll help much.
Response: If you will try to tell me, I will try to listen. I hear you saying that you are willing to try but that you dont think I will listen without getting angry. Im not saying I agree with you or that we will necessarily do it the way you want it done, but I am saying that I will really try to listen to what you are thinking and feeling and will try to keep my emotions and feelings under control. If we can talk about it with this agreement, I will really try, and I want you to tell me if it seems like I am getting angry or upset.