9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Active Listening Skills for Crisis Calls

Written by Capt. George Deuchar (Ret.); Director of Training, PowerPhone Inc.

When the phone rings and the person on the other end indicates that they are in a crisis, you must be ready to intervene. Even if that person is the only one who believes they are in crisis, they are and you must respond appropriately.

If her is hinting that he may take his own life, you need to know for sure of his intentions. How do you confirm this? Contrary to a belief that many have, you must simply ask that person, "Do you intend to harm yourself?" You can not implant the idea of suicide to a person in crisis by asking this critical question. At this moment, we need to put away our "Joe Friday" mode and remember that we are human beings. You must convey to your caller that you care, we want to listen, and we can help.

At this moment it is not our mission to solve every problem that our caller has permanently. You must strive to return this person to a normal functioning level, to a level where their normal coping mechanisms are workable. That is why time is so critical when dealing with highly emotional callers in crisis. Time reduces stress and anxiety, while it allows rationality to increase. Time also allows you to gather intelligence that can be used for decision making if a tactical approach becomes necessary. We are not the miracle workers as sometimes portrayed on television. We are however, human beings capable of expressing concern and empathy for another human being who is obviously in pain.

A pain not often easily identified, but a pain that is very real to them. Empathy will imply our willingness to try and understand what this person is experiencing. Often we cannot, and should not say "I know how you feel," because many times we have not experienced exactly what this person is experiencing. When a person's emotional level is elevated and their rational level is lowered, they are not usually performing at their "Normal Functioning Level."

Through our concern and compassionate efforts we should attempt to return them to that desired level. At that time perhaps, they will accept assistance from a Mental Health professional or without further incident allow a police officer to approach them. If law enforcement is insistent on approaching a person in a crisis state who has the means to hurt himself and is not yet ready to accept help, the situation may result in a dead caller, a dead police officer, or both. That is why it is so critical to train dispatchers in Crisis Intervention and Crisis Negotiations.

If the dispatcher has made telephone contact with this person and begins to establish trust and rapport, police agencies should allow the dispatcher to continue their effort. Whether you are dealing with a suicide caller, a barricaded person, or even some hostage takers, the best way to approach your mission of a safe resolution is to convince the caller that you care and that they can trust you to help them.

For the person in crisis that called, you should strive to convince them that calling you was a positive toward solving their immediate problem. You should attempt to obtain the caller's name and give them your name. Referring to yourself as Dispatcher #14, does not convey a sense of personal care and concern. You should attempt to bond with the caller through areas of commonality and the skillful use of Active Listening Skills. Areas of commonality might include things you have in common with your caller, such as similar life experiences, family settings, age, hobbies, and interests.

As you continue the conversation with this person remember that emotions, not reason are controlling your caller's actions. Their normal coping mechanisms are not working. This crisis may be the result of a precipitating event that has occurred within the last 24 hours, an event that was simply too much for this person to deal with. Once again keep your mission in mind, and attempt to return your caller as close as possible to their "Normal Functioning Level." Signs of initial success may include putting a weapon down, releasing a hostage, or a shift in conversation from emotional to rational.

Law Enforcement agencies believe they are being proactive when they train police officers as Crisis Negotiators. What about training the dispatcher, who is often the real first person on the scene of a crisis? Many times you will be the one that has initial contact with a person in crisis. Wouldn't it be advantageous for police agencies to train their dispatchers in crisis negotiations?

The most critical skills that you should learn and practice are referred to as "Active Listening Skills." These skills are important to many calls you receive, where listening and soliciting accurate information is essential. The following are "Active Listening Skills" that become the focus of every crisis negotiator:

Emotion Labeling: This skill is the first you would attempt to use in a critical conversation. You are simply identifying and labeling the emotion that you hear in your caller. When a caller is telling you how difficult their life is, and you hear them crying and obviously upset, be ready to respond. Respond to the emotion you hear, not the content. Try saying "You sound to me to be very upset." When anger is very obvious, say, "You sound to me to be very angry." This demonstrates to the caller that you understand and identify with their emotion, and that someone is actually listening to them. Don't tell them how they are feeling, but rather how they sounds or seem they are feeling to you.

Paraphrasing: Simply repeat or summarize in your own words the story that the caller just told you. You can initiate your statement by saying "are you telling me that..." or "are you saying that..." This skill also demonstrates that you have listened, understood, and are able to repeat and verify the information you heard. Your actions and words help build rapport with your caller, which leads to a higher level of trust.

Reflecting/Mirroring: By repeating the last word or phrase the caller just stated, you can verify the information and let them know that you heard them.

Effective Pauses: Most people are not comfortable with silence and will start to talk. These pauses are also used to emphasize something you have just said, or something you are about to say.

Signs of Encouragement: When you are on the phone, eye contact and body language are obviously not effective tools of communication. Therefore sounds, words, and acknowledgements such as "Uh huh," "OK," "Alright," or "Go ahead," will accomplish a similar objective.

"I" Messages: Use "I" messages to tell your caller how their actions are making you feel when they say or do something.

Open Ended Questions: These are questions that require more than just a "yes" or "no" or a one-word answer. They allow us to get the subject talking, bide for more time, and gain intelligence. We don't want to ask questions that only solicit very quick responses.

When used properly, active listening skills can greatly assist in dealing with people in crisis. You can practice them on many other calls you receive, even those of less importance. Make every effort to use these skills when faced with a crisis of even listening to a friend tell a story.

I recall a radio call that was dispatched on a midnight shift to a Patrol Officer in my department. The call was a possible Burglary in progress. At 2:30 AM an elderly gentleman thought he heard noises coming from the roof of his home, believing that someone was attempting to gain entry. A district patrol was dispatched and I responded to back up the primary unit. It was a fairly quick response, and the dispatcher had remained on the line with the caller. Upon our arrival, the dispatcher told the caller that we had arrived and were at his back door.

The caller observed us, came to the door and began to tell us his story. We had not seen or heard anyone during our approach, but to our caller this was a very real call. He began to tell us that he is sometimes followed home and these people that follow him, go up on his roof and listen to him. He told us that he knows they are up there when he feels the itching and burning sensations in his body. We all get callers like this lonely gentleman that we are obligated to respond and investigate. This call was a great opportunity to practice my active listening skills and let this caller know that we cared about what was real and frightening to him, whether real or not to us. (Oh, how we amuse ourselves on midnight shifts.)

"You sound to me to be very upset about this, sir...so you're telling me that you know they're up on the roof when you feel the itching and burning sensation." The patrol officer who was on the shift with me found it quite entertaining and amusing. He was surprised by my approach and observed how it appeared to make the gentleman feel better, just believing that we cared. Isn't that what public safety professionals are supposed to do? Shouldn't we demonstrate concern for people that call us in the midst of what they consider a crisis? This is a message that every caller should receive when they come to us looking for help. And no, we can't get an unlisted number.

No comments:

Post a Comment