Foundation, reminding you that a fully-integrated approach for assisting survivors of
traumatic loss involves a balance of head and heart. Wednesday Wisdom is written
and copyrighted by Carolyn V. Coarsey, Ph.D., and distributed by the Family
Assistance Education & Research Foundation Inc., www.fafonline.org. Reprint is
available with written permission from the Foundation.
“To keep our ancestors alive, Mother Nature evolved a brain that routinely
tricked them into making three mistakes: overestimating threats,
underestimating opportunities, and underestimating resources (for dealing
with threats and fulfilling opportunities)."
-Rick Hansen, Ph.D., Psychologist, and Author
At the recent Americas partner’s meeting hosted by Foundation member, Norwegian
Cruise Line in Miami, FL, Jeff Morgan facilitated a session on the subject of survivor
reception centers. Content from the discussion prompted this current Wednesday
Wisdom. The subject pertained to communicating with survivors early in the phase
of a crisis, when factual information is limited, at best.
A fundamental training concept in the Foundation’s Human Services Response™
Training pertains to psychological regression on the part of anyone involved in a
crisis and particularly family members who are receiving news about a loved one’s
involvement in a tragic event. While we have touched on this in articles before,
due to the recent discussions, we will say more about how in crisis, the rational,
logical mind of a survivor is no longer dominant. During the initial phase of an
emergency, the primal or survival brain takes over.
Family members who enter a reception center are desperate for information and
re-connection with their family member(s) involved in the tragedy. Understandably,
employees in the centers are cautious about providing information when so little
facts are confirmed. A common mistake is to say, "We don't have the information",
or "We don't know anything right now."
Survivors operating from an emotional level tend to misinterpret these statements,
i.e., sentences using words like "don't", "can't" with negative intentions on the part
of the company representatives. Due to the rapid response of the brain's
processing of information during a crisis, survivors hear these words more like,
“You won’t tell me anything," or "You know, but you won’t tell me."
Researchers tell us that our human capacity to weigh negative input so heavily
over positive information evolved for a good reason—to keep us out of harm's way.
From the dawn of human history, our very survival depended on our skill at dodging
danger. The brain developed systems that would make it unavoidable for us not to
notice danger and thus, hopefully, respond to it.
In HSR™ Training, we advise employee responders to remain in the present when
talking to survivors. Instead of saying, "We don't know," we recommend saying
"Let me tell you what we know right now." And rather than say, "We don't know for
certain what happened or who is involved right now," to avoid promoting negative
bias in the survivors, we advocate sharing with the survivors what we do know by
talking about what is happening at the site or some other relevant part of the crisis
response. Talking about the process of the early stages of accident response
allows the survivors to have a picture of what is taking place as we are learning
Dr. Rick Hansen, the author of Resilient, reminds us that the right hemisphere of
the brain is mainly responsible for registering negative emotions. The right region
is specialized for visual-spatial processing, and therefore when we describe the
process of what is happening, a family member’s right brain can go to work
providing them with a picture of activity. In essence, we let the survivors know that
while we may know very few facts or the specifics of their loved one at that moment,
events are taking place that will yield vital information that will be shared once it is
confirmed. Without words to create a picture, left on their own, survivors
unconsciously think the worst, including that the company representatives have
been told by leadership not to share information.
"Setting an example is not the primary means of influencing others, it is the
-Albert Einstein, Physicist (1879-1955)
During a crisis, it is critical that those in leadership positions model preferred
behavior they wish for those they are supervising to repeat. Most employee
responders will mimic what they hear their leaders say to the public, as well
as team members. Regular briefings with employee responders might include
a reminder about psychological regression on the part of survivors and how
this fact must impact messaging.
Reminding employees that survivors are not in a logical state of mind during the
early stage of the crisis due to negative bias would help team members in planning
all that they say to families in briefings, telephone response, as well as, individual
discussions with family members. Discussing the fact that this negativity is
fundamental to human nature and that there are successful methods of speaking
with people (examples above) during these times would also be helpful to review
in on-going updates with team members.
In any crisis in the workplace, the cloud of negativity that often prevails in meetings
with anxious, sometimes frantic family members, can be improved at least on some
level when responders understand more about how humans survive in a crisis.
Educating team members about where these reactions come from and how to
speak to family members more effectively can go a long way to prevent second
assaults made due to lack of understanding on the part of well-intentioned
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