Critical Communications Skills: Responding With Words - Part 2

Firefighters and emergency responders are well aware of the need for clear communication. Whether in dispatch or on the fireground, effective communication is essential. The same is no less true in the interpersonal area or one-to-one communication...


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Firefighters and emergency responders are well aware of the need for clear communication. Whether in dispatch or on the fireground, effective communication is essential. The same is no less true in the interpersonal area or one-to-one communication. Whether with a victim or fellow responder, and especially when there is stress, emotional upset or tension, how one responds with words can have a lasting impact, either positive or negative.

While volumes have been written about communication skills, the last Fire Psychology column (March 1998) attempted to provide an introduction to some basic concepts through a self-evaluation of response style. In this month's column, a more specific description of response styles and effective approaches that help individuals cope and deal with stressful situations will be discussed.

Hopefully, you completed the self-evaluation exercise in the March 1998 column and still have your answer form with your totals for each column titled K P, R, E and S. Each letter stands for a different type of response to the scenarios described:

H - a HOSTILE response.
P - a PROBING or questioning response.
R - a REASSURING response.
E - an EVALUATIVE response.
S - a SUPPORTIVE response.

The column in which you have most of your responses suggests your typical response style in such situations. If you have responses in many different columns, this suggests your style may not be very consistent. Reviewing the types of responses you chose suggests how you might typically respond when faced with someone in a stressful situation.

There is no "right" way of responding. Different situations call for different types of responses. But for purposes of this exercise, the style that is recommended as most effective is the supportive style- Therefore, the more "S" choices you made the better. Supportive responses are recommended in stressful situations. The reasons for this, the nature of the other types of responses, and their strengths and weakness, will be discussed now.

The Hostile Response is one that is meant to humiliate, punish or antagonize. It is a response that really does not belong in a helping situation or therapeutic interaction. However, because of the tension that a stressful situation can create for both the responder and person in need, hostile responses can occur.

While certain situations call for disagreeing with the person under stress or providing strong and directive advice, hostile responses are never productive in finding a solution. A hostile response on the part of a responder simply creates a cycle of hostility and counter-hostility which can destroy the rapport needed to truly help someone under stress. It is best to try to understand the source of hostility and move to reduce it.

The Probing Response is essentially that of asking questions. This is a very common type of approach used by emergency responders because it is part of their training and job to ask questions to get the information they need to make an effective response. Probing or questioning responses imply that getting as much information as possible by asking questions is the best way to "find the answer" to solve the person's problem.

Unfortunately, in situations of acute stress or crisis, excessive or misplaced questions can actually inhibit reaching a solution. First, it may be an incorrect assumption that a stressful situation can be best handled by finding an answer through questions. It may not even be the role of the responder to be the one to define or find the answer for the individual.

Excessive questioning can actually make the person in crisis a passive participant in the situation and prevent regaining a sense of confidence to begin to handle things better on their own. Finally by focusing too much on questions, a responder may miss other important cues (actions, body motions, facial expressions) as to how the person is doing. Questions are useful unless overdone, poorly timed or poorly asked.

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