(Original artwork by Carl Sinclair, acrylic, 22″ x 28″)
How do you talk to a person who just experienced trauma?
Without specialized training in Psychology, it is not always clear what to say, how to say it, or how to make things better. Below are four coaching strategies you can use as an Emergency Coaching Response.
Emergency Coaching Response is a system of attending to a person in crisis in a focused, clear and compassionate way, using coaching tools. I developed and piloted it for the People’s Recovery Summit in NYC in 2013, after hurricane Sandy.
Think of it as a psychological equivalent of CPR; it is not therapy or coaching, and anyone can learn it. It is a resource for you when you walk into a crisis situation after the first responders have dealt with the issues of basic safety, when you face a heated conflict at work, when you see a person crying in the bathroom, and you want to help them.
1. Project a coaching presence, which is therapeutic to a person in crisis
Why: Your calm, confident presence is a part of the solution. Think of a line from Hafiz’ poem: “Troubled? Then stay with me, for I am not.” Bring the energy of calmness, project being composed and untroubled. You don’t have to have all the answers; your stable calming presence in itself may help a shaken-up person feel calmer. A person in crises may freeze up, or may not be able to slow themselves down enough to breathe adequately. They may not be able to answer simple questions or make seemingly simple decisions due to shock: “What do you need?” “Nothing.” “Everything.” “I don’t know.”
How: Embody the energy of a therapy dog. Therapy dogs create space for people to ‘just be’, no matter what emotions people bring to the table. Model deep, slow breathing. Your peaceful presence of ‘just being here’ allows for the person in crisis to have room to breathe, cry, think and rest.
2. Ask questions without intimidating or frustrating the person in crisis (and ask ONLY those questions the answers to which are helpful to the person in crisis, not satisfy your curiosity).
Why: There may be an issue of trust, as people in crisis may be trying to figure out who you are, why you are there, and what hidden motifs you may have. The person may be frustrated or defensive, as they may have had to re-tell their story many times before you showed up, and they are still in the same situation.
– Before you ask questions, give your name, state your intention, and ask for permission to help. For example, “I am [you name]. I am an Emergency Coaching Responder, I am here to help. May I talk to you?” Don’t force help on people and don’t pressure them to tell you what happened.
– Start with assessing basic needs by gentle questions that don’t require big decisions. For example, don’t ask “Do you need a blanket?”; instead, try “I have a blanket that I would like to wrap around you. Would it be ok?”. A question like “How do you feel?” may be too big. Try “What is your biggest concern right now, at this moment?”
– Ask questions to connect them with people they care about.
“Do you have any family?” may be a loaded question, especially if the person is not sure how their family is doing at the moment. Try a softer, more constructive question: “Is there anyone I can help you try to reach?”
3. Shift from spinning catastrophic stories to focusing on ‘what is’.
Why: Spinning catastrophic stories about what may or may not have happened creates additional stress. Of course, if a story that a person in crisis is telling helps them calm down or feel more hopeful, let it be, because in the moment of crisis anything that helps is an asset.
How: To get grounded in the senses, if the person is able to sit up, you can suggest that they put their feet on the floor and feel the firm ground under their feet. Ask them to touch any surface to feel its texture, or notice whether they are sitting comfortably. You may offer a stress ball to squeeze, or ask the person to take a couple of deep breaths with you. If you notice plants or pets in their environment, if a particular article of clothing or an item like a keychain catch your eye, ask the person questions about the items to help them stay focused and grounded in the present.
4. Help the person in distress regain focus and control.
Why: Immediately after the crisis, nothing seems normal, nothing is the way it was. The key to effective Emergency Coaching Response is to help people find their “new normal”, even if it’s a temporary “new normal”, and adjust to it well by gaining some sense of control.
How: Give the person in crisis a small, practical task they can handle and view as useful. For example, folding laundry or a similar mechanical light task of tidying, watering flowers, cataloging items on the scene, counting or making a list of items or people. Through small steps of taking control in the ‘new normal’ people in crisis can slowly start ‘returning to themselves’ and make strides toward regaining control in their lives.
A few final thoughts:
As an emergency coaching responder, you are not there to solve problems or give advice. At the same time, without being a psychologist, a social worker, or a coach, you can still provide comfort, help people in crisis regain their ability to help themselves, and share empowering resources. For example, you can find out where they can fill out certain forms, where they can get clean water, etc. In other words, you can help people in crisis cope with their ‘new normal’.
Try to be aware of the response efforts that are happening in the area: know what’s going on, who is in charge, and whom to ask questions, so that you can effectively connect the person in crisis with the necessary resources.
Be honest about your credentials. Don’t exaggerate your ability to help, and understand the limits of your role.
Respect the person’s privacy; keep their story confidential unless disclosing it helps the person’s case.
Please share this information.
I am happy to do a free 1-1.5-hour program for your team, group or community on providing Emergency Coaching Response, send me a note to Alina@AlinaBas.com to discuss and set it up.
If your organization would like a full 35-hour course on Emergency Coaching Response©, please ask the person in charge to reach out to me.
News and Updates
Sensing: The Elephant in the Room of Management Learning is a first peer-reviewed academic paper I co-authored, and it was just published. If you’re interested to understand how sensing affects your learning, please, read it.
Are you curious what AI can and cannot do for your organization? My advisor, Dr. Viktor Dorfler, just published a book “What Every CEO Should Know About AI“, and you can download a PDF of it from Cambridge University Press (free until March 18th).
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