The way you communicate with someone in distress is very important. People who have been through a crisis event may be very upset, anxious or confused. Being calm and showing understanding can help people in distress feel more safe and secure, understood, respected and cared for appropriately.
Someone who has been through a distressing event may want to tell you their story. Listening to someone’s story can be a great support. However, it is important not to pressure anyone to tell you what they have been through. Some people may not want to speak about what has happened or their circumstances. However, they may value it if you stay with them quietly, let them know you are there if they want to talk, or offer practical support like a meal or a glass of water. Don’t talk too much; allow for silence. Keeping silent for a while may give the person space and encourage them to share with you if they wish.
To communicate well, be aware of both your words and body language, such as facial expressions, eye contact, gestures, and the way you sit or stand in relation to the other person. Each culture has its own particular ways of behaving that are appropriate and respectful. Speak and behave in ways that take into account the person’s culture, age, gender, customs and religion.
Below are suggestions for things to say and do, and what not to say and do. Most importantly, be yourself, be genuine and be sincere in offering your help and care.
Things to say and do
- Try to find a quiet place to talk, and minimize outside distractions.
- Respect privacy and keep the person’s story confidential, if this is appropriate.
- Stay near the person but keep an appropriate distance depending on their age, gender and culture.
- Let them know you are listening; for example, nod your head or say “hmmmm….”
- Be patient and calm.
- Provide factual information, if you have it. Be honest about what you know and don’t know. “I don’t know, but I will try to find out about that for you.”
- Give information in a way the person can understand – keep it simple.
- Acknowledge how they are feeling and any losses or important events they tell you about, such as loss of their home or death of a loved one. “I’m so sorry. I can imagine this is very sad for you.”
- Acknowledge the person’s strengths and how they have helped themselves.
- Allow for silence.
Things NOT to say or do
- Don’t pressure someone to tell their story.
- Don’t interrupt or rush someone’s story (for example, don’t look at your watch or speak too rapidly).
- Don’t touch the person if you’re not sure it is appropriate to do so.
- Don’t judge what they have or haven’t done, or how they are feeling. Don’t say: “You shouldn’t feel that way,” or “You should feel lucky you are here.”
- Don’t make up things you don’t know.
- Don’t use terms that are too technical.
- Don’t tell them someone else’s story. Don’t talk about your own troubles.
- Don’t give false promises or false reassurances.
- Don’t think and act as if you must solve all the person’s problems for them.
- Don’t take away the person’s strength and sense of being able to care for themselves.
- Don’t talk about people in negative terms (for example, don’t call them “crazy” or “mad”).
Some people who experience a crisis situation may be very anxious or upset. They may feel confused or overwhelmed, and may have some physical reactions such as shaking or trembling, difficulty breathing or feeling their heart pounding. The following are some techniques to help very distressed people to feel calm in their mind and body:
- Keep your tone of voice calm and soft.
- If culturally appropriate, try to maintain some eye contact with the person as you talk with them.
- Remind the person that you are there to help them. Remind them that they are safe, if it is true.
- If someone feels unreal or disconnected from their surroundings, it may help them to make contact with their current environment and themselves. You can do this by asking them to:
- Place and feel their feet on the floor.
- Tap their fingers or hands on their lap.
- Notice some non-distressing things in their environment, such as things they can see, hear or feel.
- Have them tell you what they see and hear.
- Encourage the person to focus on their breathing, and to breathe slowly.