Is It Really as Easy as Sitting and Listening?

by Vance Farrell

Anger, anxiety, sadness, and confusion are all common emotions that we’ve all experienced at some point in our lives and may have gotten the best of us, leading to some decision(s) that we regretted at a later time. While this is a seldom occurrence for some of us, this occurs much more often for others, and they can find themselves in this heightened state more frequently. These individuals have consistent struggles with navigating through their emotions and thoughts. Although others around the heightened individual may not be experiencing the onslaught of emotions and racing thoughts themselves, their experience in these moments can be difficult as well. This occurs because it can feel as though nothing they try is helping the heightened individual calm down or work through the situation. Experiencing a moment like this can be life-changing because you can witness people at their very worst when they feel like nothing can get better, and/or they are just hurting, spiraling further and further down a road with potentially very extreme consequences. However, there are things that those present can do to actively help the individual amidst a crisis to guide them beyond the emotions they are currently engulfed in and to assist them in getting to a state where they can think rationally and make decisions that will improve their situation, rather than making it worse.

In order to assist somebody in a heightened state, it is best to display an open and calm demeanor even though the person may appear highly agitated, frustrated, anxious, or sad. Maintaining this calm façade, stance, and attitude helps to model this type of behavior as those in the escalated state will want to mimic the individual they are with, a common experience in human communication. In addition, the individual helping will need to talk less and listen more, as those who are in a heightened state often have a lot of repressed emotions and thoughts that need a path to escape without interference. Allowing time for the person to get these emotions and thoughts out does a lot at that moment for the individual to feel that release and serves as a method to allow the heightened individual to hear themselves out loud. Oftentimes these thoughts and emotions have been swirling around, like a broken record, in the person’s mind, and after suffering with this for so long, it becomes hard to combat and ignore them. However, once the person is able to actually hear the thoughts and emotions aloud, it can be processed differently. The individual is finally able to comprehend the thoughts and emotions that were swirling around as though they were somebody else’s experiences, and they are more readily able to identify the flaws present. While this does not always occur naturally, the person listening can help the heightened individual in this transition by asking clarifying questions that allow the heightened individual to feel heard and realize that somebody else cares. This also allows for the heightened individual to hear their thoughts and emotions numerous times to really help them hear themselves.

The information above makes it seem like all that needs to be done is sitting and listening to the individual, but while that is helpful, indeed it is not the end of helping someone through a crisis. Once the eruption is over, there will be a natural lull in the action. The heightened individual will have exhausted a lot of energy in expressing themselves, their thoughts, and their negative emotions that have been weighing on them for some time. This is when it is best to try to actively engage with the person as they will be more likely to hear what you have to say and be more open to suggestions about how to proceed. Identifying these next steps allows for the individual to inform others as to what works best for them and can help those around be better prepared if this happens again. 

Sitting and listening may feel like you are not doing anything at all, but by simply allowing the person to freely express themselves, whether it be by yelling, cursing, or flailing about, this release is a necessary part of the de-escalation cycle. This cycle requires time to play out naturally, and unless safety is a concern, otherwise it is best to simply sit, listen, and allow the unheard to finally have a voice. Listen first and take action, if necessary, later.

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