Sunday, May 25, 2014

Step One in Crisis Communications: Validating Emotion

As I have been teaching crisis communications around the country, I've seen some blank looks when I mention that validating emotion is the first step when dealing with a person who is very emotional.  This becomes even more important when you are dealing with a person who is very emotional most of the time.

Many of our loved ones struggling with mental illness have strong emotional reactions to just about everything at times.  They vent, they rage, they cry. This can become overwhelming to us who are around them.  When we try to stop the emotional outburst, to come up with reasons that show them that they are overacting, to suggest changes ... it can set off a fiasco.  We react, and our loved ones react to our reactions, and round and round.  This is why so many people feel spent and helpless.  Some people even fantasize about running away from home ... and they are the healthy folks.  This is not unusual.

Validation is an important way to break the cycle. It's a technique that can be used with any emotional expression.  It tends to reduce the emotional outburst rather than to amplify it.  I've used it often, and I've found it good in every situations from everyday business drama to dealing with a manic person.

When anyone vents, it tends to up the emotion.  A simple response of "I can understand why you feel that way ... it's normal to be upset about this,"  can reduce the emotion.  In doing this, you are validating some part of the person's emotional experience. And the emotional experiences of our loved ones with mental illness are quite real.  How many things have they been told that they are overreacting, out of control, being ridiculous?

So the key to getting an emotional person to listen to you ... regardless of whether they have a diagnosis or not ... is to find emotions and thoughts to validate in their words.  Do not agree with anything that is truly false.  But you can often find some piece of what they are saying to agree with.  Validate that.  Your sincerity will ring through.

If the person is in the midst of trashing themselves, they are actually showing you what they think about themselves.  I find it easy to get into an endless argument at these times.
"I'm a terrible person."
"No, you're not."
"Yes, I am. You are just saying that because you have to."

How about this?
"I'm a terrible person."
"We all think that we are terrible people sometimes. I know that you are seeing yourself that way now. And you've made some mistakes.  We all have.  Those mistakes may be making you feel bad about yourself right now.  But here's the good that I see in you: ..." 

Validation can open the path to getting your loved one to listen to you.