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. 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.

Another very common type of response by emergency personnel to someone in crisis or under stress is the Reassuring Response. Reassuring responses are an attempt to restore a sense of wellness, confidence or worthiness in the individual under stress. While there is an important role for reassurance, especially in crisis situations, problems occur when the need to reassure on the part of the responder is so great that unobtainable promises (false reassurance) are made.

Responders need to be careful that they don't promise what cannot be guaranteed. Promising that "everything will be OK" may be something that a responder cannot know and can lead to great resentment on the part of the victim if everything does not turn out all right. When a reassuring response is needed, a better reassuring statement is something like, "we're going to do everything we can" or, "we're going to stay in this with you." Another form of false reassurance is a comment so general as to be meaningless to the person in need. Comments such as, "hey, stuff happens" or, "don't worry, be happy" are examples of broad and minimally helpful reassurance.

Finally, it must be recognized that general or excessive reassurance can serve to minimize the expression of concern or worry by the individual under stress. Research has shown that in crisis situations, attempting to "cheer the person up" or encouraging the "brighter side" are seen by victims as suggesting that responders are minimizing the importance of the situation and that their feelings are not appropriate and shouldn't be expressed.

Excessive reassurance by a responder may actually say more about the responder than the person in need. Excessive reassurance is often used by an emergency responder who is made uncomfortable when emotions are expressed. Reassurance is used to try to "shut down" emotional expression so the responder will not be uncomfortable.

The Evaluative Response is one that makes a value judgment about whether the person in need is reacting as he or she "should" act in the situation. An evaluative response often implies how the person should act. Evaluative responses are a problem because it is not up to the responder to judge how a person in need should react. Every individual is unique and the appropriateness of reactions cannot be judged without extensive information, interaction and training. Evaluative responses are also a problem because by passing judgment on a person's reactions, there is a failure to be aware of and acknowledge what is important to that person. It is likely to reduce willingness to be open and accept help from the responder.

The Supportive Response, also called the understanding response, is the type of response that is recommended as most effective and therapeutic in helping an individual under stress or in crisis. The supportive response is one that provides the greatest openness and potential for useful change. The supportive response is one that summarizes and feeds back to the individual what he or she just said. It "reflects" back to the person his or her comments so that they can hear them again, react to them, and in the process show that the responder has heard what the person said.

Supportive responses are ones that begin with phrases such as, "you seem to be saying..." or, "it seems to me that you're saying..." or, "so you're saying that..." Supportive responses show empathy and understanding. They are an invitation to the person in distress to be more open and to begin to regain control and confidence.

By understanding their typical style of interpersonal response and by being aware of responses that are effective in stressful situations, firefighters and emergency responders can provide a very positive psychological impact on those in need.

Michael J. Asken, Ph.D., a Firehouse® contributing editor, is the psychologist consultant for the Camp Hill, PA, Fire Department and an instructor at the Fire Academy of the Harrisburg Area Community College Public Safety Institute in Harrisburg, PA.