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In crisis communication, we want to
be as helpful to the individual as our knowledge and skills let us, and we can
do more than merely filter the individual’s crisis color through our blue

In crisis communication, an
important part of our goal is to make our skills and abilities available to the
individual.  We have made our mood or
tone available to him in a way that helps him calm down and plan ahead.  In the same way, we can make our skills and
knowledge available to him in terms of thinking, questioning, considering, and
planning.  For example, people caught up
in the emotions of crisis are usually trying to think about and concentrate on
what to do about the situation.  Their
thoughts and ideas about what to do are generally motivated by a very emotional
and somewhat confused notion of what happened. 
When we ask them “What happened?” 
we are asking them to think more clearly and objectively about what
caused them to be so upset or confused. 
The question, “What happened?” gently encourages them to begin to think
about this situation in a more reasoning and systematic way.  If they were not so upset, they would
probably be figuring out what happened themselves instead of using all their
energies thinking about what they are going to do.  Our questions, interest, and calm concern
gradually nudge them to use their own thinking and planning skills.  They start out by using our questions, our
way of systematically looking at their situations, and our skills at thinking
through problems.  Our skills and
knowledge are available to them, and they use these as a means of getting in
touch with their own skills and knowledge. Basically, we become a part of their
communication process, asking questions, giving focus to problems, helping them
to be more systematic.

We have all had conversations with
someone who goes into great detail as he talks. 
He wants, for example, to tell us that he is unable to keep a date he
has with us.  The short version of his story
is that something unexpected came up.  He
calls up to cancel our meeting.  The
conversation starts: “I got a call yesterday from my mother.  She hasn’t been feeling well.  It probably is a recurrence of an old back
injury she received in an automobile accident several years ago.  She was driving her car past a school, when a
school bus backed out into her lane of traffic.”  Fifteen minutes later, and after having
completely exhausted our patience, he tells us that his mother has a doctor’s
appointment, and he has to take her. 
That is why he will not be able to meet with us.

In many conversations, people tell
us more than we want to know, while people in crisis have the opposite tendency
to tell us far less than we need to know. 
A fairly complex set of circumstances has led to a crisis.  The individual is very familiar with the circumstances
and is experiencing crisis.  At that
point, he is oriented to getting himself out of the crisis.  He might start by saying, “What can I do?  I have to do something.”  If this is the first time we have talked with
him, our first thought will usually be to ask what happened about which
something needs to be done.  Frequently,
it is difficult to get people to move past their emotional reaction and their
intense focus on “I have to do something.”

Helen, age twenty-three, starts her
communication in a very intense, almost overwhelming way.  “You have to help me.  I don’t know what to do—it’s terrible.  I don’t know how I ever got myself in such a
mess.  I’m going to have to quit my job
and move.  There’s no other choice.  I just have to.  I can’t stay around.  I can’t face people.  There’s just no way I can deal with
this.  [You ask in a slightly excited
tone: What happened?]  I can’t tell
you.  I can’t tell anyone.  If anyone ever found out about this, well—I
just—I can’t tell you.  I can’t tell anyone.  [You say: I can’t imagine what would seem so
terrible.  What could happen that would
make you want to quit your job and feel it would be awful if anyone found out
about it?]  It’s so terrible.  I don’t see how I could be so stupid.  It’s horrible!  I’m so stupid.  Now everything is ruined, everything is
ruined.  [You say: Sometimes bad things
happen, but that doesn’t mean that we are stupid.]  You don’t know what happened.  You don’t know how really bad, stupid,
horrible it really is.  [You ask: Would
you tell me what happened if I guess?] 
No—yes—I don’t know.  Go
ahead.  [You ask: Did you get raped or
something like that?]  Oh, my God,
no!  It’s nothing like that.  Wow! 
That would really be terrible.  I
don’t know what I would do if something like that ever happened to me.  [You ask: If it’s not so bad as that, can you
tell me a little bit about what it has to do with?]  It’s really hard.  I can’t tell you.  I don’t know. 
I have to tell someone.  I don’t’
know what to do.  What should I do?  [You say: I don’t know.  Let’s think about it.  Can you tell me what happened?]  Well, you were sort of right, but nothing
really happened.  It’s a man.  A guy I work with.  I let him take me for a drink after work one
evening, and on the way home—well, things got a little out of hand.  Nothing really happened, but he called this
evening, and my husband answered the phone. 
I think he knows something is going on. 
I don’t know why I let it happen. 
It was so stupid and dumb and terrible. 
I want to tell my husband it’s nothing and that nothing happened.  I’m afraid, though.  I just know he would leave.”

Sometimes it is necessary to guess
or follow hunches when helping people express the content of their crises.  These guesses and hunches are based on our
understanding of people, their situations, the interactions between them and
their situations, and our understanding of the most likely causes and kinds of
conflicts in those interactions.  When
people are having extreme anxiety, guilt, embarrassment, and apprehension about
anyone finding out what happened, it is important to note that the crisis frequently
has a sexual component.  Think, for
example, about your biggest secret.  What
single incident or episode in your life would you be least willing to have
published in your local newspaper?  Odds
are that it has something to do with sex or sexual behavior.  Even if this is not true for you, it is true
for most people.  When people are having
extreme difficulty getting up the courage to tell you what happened, then it is
a good bet that a sexual incident of some kind is involved.

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