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NOT JUST CONVERSATION

Perhaps it will be helpful to think about crisis communication in terms of its differences from and its similarities to more typical conversations in which communication is sequential.  You make a comment or observation, express a feeling, or send some other type of message to me.  I receive your message and add some ideas and feelings of my own.  I then send you a message related to what you said but include my own ideas and feelings.  You receive my message and add some ideas and feelings of your own.  The process goes back and forth with our individual ideas and feelings being added.  Over a period of time, then, we may have talked about many different things, expressed a lot of different views and ideas, and ended up with something that had no apparent relationship to what we started talking about.  We have moved, sequentially, from one thing to another, and our communication drifts.  In crisis communication, however, focus starts and remains with the individual and his crisis.

As we think about the communication loop, an example may help to illustrate differences between ordinary conversation, on the one hand, and crisis communication, on the other.  Recall Dick’s predicament with his supposedly unfaithful wife.  First, consider how a conversation might go between Dick and a friend.

DICK:  I just found out that my wife has been sleeping with a man she works with.

FRIEND:  How long has that been going on?

DICK:  I don’t know.  What do you think I should do?

FRIEND:  I wouldn’t put up with it.  Did you tell her what you thought about it?

DICK:  I sure did!  I told her what I thought, and I feel like packing my bags and leaving.

FRIEND:  You can stay at my house a few days.  You don’t have to put up with that kind of stuff going on in your own house.

As we can see, Dick’s friend not only added his own opinions and attitudes but, in fact, encouraged the snowball effect of Dick’s crisis.  As we mentioned in Part I, crisis intervention should reduce the now potential and increase the self-resolution factor.  Dick’s friend tended to move the crisis in a direction that increased the now potential.  In addition, the friend’s behavior tended to lower the self-resolution factor.  Instead of increasing Dick’s ability to deal with the crisis, the friend tended to take over the situation himself, telling Dick what to do and giving him directions.  The friend’s effort to improve the situation through conversation probably made things worse.

Next, consider the following crisis communication involving Dick.  In this, you make your knowledge, skills, and feelings available to him in a way that reduces the now potential of the crisis and increases the self-resolution factor.

DICK:  I just found out that my wife has been sleeping with a man she works with.

YOU:  Wow!  How are you dealing with that?

DICK:  I told her off, and I feel like packing my bags and leaving.

YOU:  I think I might feel pretty hurt, angry, and confused if that happened to me.  Where do you think you might go?

DICK:  I haven’t thought about it.  I just think I’ll leave.

YOU:  Wonder if running will help things any?  It might just make matters worse.

DICK:  I don’t know; I can’t just stay here and act like nothing happened.  What do you think I should do?

YOU:  I don’t know, Dick.  I want to help.  Maybe it will help to talk about it some more and to try to think things through.  Had you and your wife been having trouble?

As we look at this example of crisis communication, we can see that you have somewhat reduced the now potential by getting Dick to think about what is going on and by involving him in the crisis communication process.  You are working toward increasing the self-resolution factor by getting him to look at the situation, question his actions, and think about what might have led up to the crisis.  At the same time, you are beginning to develop a “picture” of the crisis and are inviting him to tell you more about his situation.  You are following the crisis intervention process, responding to Dick’s feelings, and showing some honest empathy with him and his predicament.  You are not having a conversation with him.  You are involving him in crisis communication.

People communicate with each other for many reasons.  We may communicate to get or give information.  To get information, we read books, newspapers, letters, pamphlets, catalogs; watch television, listen to the radio; ask people questions; go to meetings; and so on.  We are constantly in the process of getting information.  Sometimes we do it intentionally because we want the information.  Sometimes we do it out of habit, or for lack of anything else to do.  We also spend a lot of time giving information to other people.  We answer their questions, write letters, tell them things they may or may not want to know, point things out to them, and so on.  Getting and giving information occupies much of our communication time.  At other times, we communicate for entertainment.  We go to movies, talk to friends, read good books, start conversations while waiting in line, telephone our family, and so on.  Sometimes we communicate just because it is expected.  “Hello, how are you?” … “I’m fine, how are you?” This kind of social communication is familiar to all of us.  At other times, communication involves giving advice, expressing opinions, just talking because things are too quiet; and if we are deep in thought or doing something tedious, we may even talk to ourselves.

Crisis communication is a special and limited type of communication.  It is solely for the benefit of the individual in crisis.  We like to be helpful, enjoy working with people, and feel good if our efforts are appreciated.  Nevertheless, our purpose is to help people in crisis, and their purpose is to be helped.  Why will it be more helpful for them to talk to us than to talk with a friend, a member of the family, or someone else?  Why can we help when other people cannot?  In part, our helpfulness comes from our understanding of and focus on the crisis communication process.  Everything we say and do is solely for the benefit of the individual in crisis.  We do not blame, accuse, pass judgment, become extremely sympathetic, take sides, or become “pushy” or meddling.  We start where the individual is in terms of his thoughts and feelings and do not jump to conclusions or assume that we understand and try to tell him what to do about his problem.  We recognized that he is a unique individual with a unique situation.  He and his situation may be very similar to others we have dealt with, but it is his life and his problem and is, thus, very special to him.  We are not going to “treat him” or try to solve his problem.  Rather, our goal is to help him calm down, slow down, think things through, and plan ahead.  We assume that he is a rational person capable of dealing with his world.  Our efforts are supportive and encouraging.  We modify and clarify his messages, filter his feelings, and let him use our knowledge and skills to his benefit.  In crisis communication, the individual uses us to supplement and support his own skills and capacities.  Being available to him in this way is the major difference between crisis communication and other types of communication.  Further, this special characteristic of crisis communication is what is most helpful about this kind of help.

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Please send comments or questions to Gary A. Crow, Ph.D. GAC@GaryCrow.net || and visit www.GaryCrow.net.