Onlookers have often commented, after observing me support a person in crisis, that they can’t understand how my words de-escalated the situation. There is often confusion and disbelief. This has happened countless times. There have even been people that wondered out loud if I am hypnotizing people. The true answer is that many years of practice and learning from copious hours of de-escalation, have yielded these tools that I utilize every time.
Speaking to people in crisis is a skill that can be acquired over years of practice (in my case), but it can also be taught. We all need to be regulated at some point, and in turn, we will all need this skill to provide to another. As a community we need to do better at de-escalating conflict rather than inciting it. We all need these skills. We need to find commonality across the divide. One of the most effective skills to do that is by keeping communication regulated.
As you consider this, I want you to remember that the vast majority of escalation can be attached to a few feelings. It may look like anger, but it is not. The feelings that drive psychological crisis are fear, panic, shame, threat, and sometimes embarrassment. These are the feelings we have to speak to. As you might imagine there are a few responses that never work with these feelings: judgment, patronization, authority, condescension, shock, disgust, and opposing fear.
To soothe the crisis, we have to talk to the psychological trauma that usually takes the form of fear, shame, threat, panic, and embarrassment. The only way to talk to the trauma is to recognize and then quiet it (make it smaller) for the person through validation, compassion, care, and soothing. In my experience, even though our gut sometimes tells us to confront the trauma, there is no way for one person to talk someone in crisis out of their trauma by confrontation or conflict. When we dismiss, invalidate, or confront, we are essentially saying to the trauma, “I can’t see you, get bigger.” We have to “see” it, join with the trauma, stand with the trauma, get close enough to feel it, and believe in it.
Trust only grows, when the other person believes we believe them. When trust grows, we can challenge a person’s crisis by offering an opportunity to stop being in crisis. Then and only then, can we talk to the trauma while simultaneously offering an alternative solution to the trauma, , for example, healing.
Tips for talking to ‘Trauma’
- Ensure that the other is feeling heard
- Give and take in communication fairly
- Define your own personal boundaries and put words to them
- Do not attend to the details, this is about communication, not facts. Care before facts.
- Stay calm and steady, regardless
- Take breaks when needed but agree when you will come back to the table
- Assume the other is trying their hardest
- Continue to weave in that you are on the same team
- Listen closely for what the other really wants