A few years ago I developed what I call Emotional First Aid, which is very similar to many other approaches to helping calm people down when there is some kind of extreme situation or high level of stress. The very well written and thoughtful information that was linked to in the Mission 9 Learn briefing, the Nieman Guide to Covering Pandemic Flu, also offered this kind of systematic approach to psychological emergencies. Nieman's list
of things to pay attention to when someone is under a lot of stress includes the following:
• Safety is about removing people from a threat.
• Calming happens when you want to lower the state of arousal so people can function, concentrate and take concrete steps towards what they need to do to protect themselves.
• Connection: People's basic need to connect with others and not be isolated needs to be attended to.
• Efficacy occurs when someone is capable of taking action on their own. When they do so as a member of a group, that's collective efficacy.
• Hope: The idea that the world is predicable and we will get through it, that's hope.
My own version of this process is based on the first four "deficiency" needs in Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and uses the mnemonic acronym HOPE to describe the four steps of emotional first aid...
When talking to someone who's acting stressed, scared, frustrated, sad, suicidal, or depressed, try giving the conversation some HOPE! Start with H and take your time getting to E. Take as long as they need on each step before moving on to the next one. As a general rule, the first three steps are each likely to take hours, or days even. Also, before you begin, make sure you are both physically safe and comfortable, with both of you having your basic physical needs for health and safety taken care of (food, water, air, warmth, and light, as well as the ability to eliminate any excess stuff from the body). People need to be at least temporarily physically healthy and safe before they can begin to be emotionally healthy and safe. Once everyone is physically ok for the moment, go ahead and:
HELP - let them know you are here to help: say, "I'm here for you." and maybe "We'll figure this out together." Make sure they believe you really are there to help, or find someone else who they can believe will help them to help them.
OBSERVE - find out what's going in inside their head: "What are you worried about?" and "What do you think you need now?" Really listen to the answer calmly, quietly, and with an open mind. No, I mean REALLY LISTEN. For as long as it takes for them to get it all out and feel fully heard. Seriously, stay at this step until they are completely done expressing their concerns and start to ask you questions or look at you for advice.
PERSPECTIVES - Understand their perspective. Having listened to what they said, frame it in a POSITIVE way, and check if it seems reasonable to them. And then offer your own, or an objective third-person perspective, too, again in a positive frame, for a realistic "big picture" view of what might happen next: "It sounds like you are looking for... This kind of thing happened to a friend of mine, and they found (something positive)..."
ENERGY - empower them to be more successful in the future by offering resources to them (physical, emotional, and/or intellectual) to make things easier for everyone: "I'm willing to give you some... if that would make things easier." Or point them in the direction of someone else who might be able to give them what they are seeking.
I once invested five bucks in printing up a few hundred postcards on one of those online printing companies (the one that offers "free business cards" and about a million other "free" products, that you only have to pay shipping on) using this text on one side and a pretty piece of art on the other side. I gave out to anyone who wanted them, put them on literature tables and bulletin boards at schools, libraries, and healthcare places. My original intent was to have it to hand to people when I, myself, was in panic mode and needed someone else to help calm me down. :-) But it's definitely nice to have around for others who want help, too.
And finally, I really appreciated the way Nieman
phrased things in the section called "Outrage management"
When we are looking at risks that are high in outrage and low in hazard, people are very likely to get upset and not very likely to get hurt. This calls for “outrage management.” Your goal is to decrease the outrage. It’s the flip side of precaution advocacy. If the paradigm there is “Watch out,” here it is “Calm down.”
But what happens to outraged people when you say “Calm down”? Where does the outrage go? It goes up, right?
So you don’t actually say “Calm down,” but that is your goal.
Instead of an eight-second sound bite, you have an eight-hour meeting. It’s a very different situation and there’s no need to keep it short...
Outrage management is done largely with the ears; precaution advocacy is done exclusively with the mouth. Outrage management involves a lot of listening, and a very weird thing happens when you listen to people’s concerns—they become calmer. I’m not saying the outrage disappears. It’s not magic, but they get calmer. The other thing that happens is they start wanting to hear from you.
There are a few people who are naturally great listeners and are thus very talented at calming people down. The rest of us can probably use some practice, and we can hopefully practice it when things are reasonably calm already, just like practicing physical first aid during a first aid class so you know how to do it in case you really need it... :-)