How to Calm Someone Down

If your hard drive failed, you'd want to talk to Kelly Chessen. For five years, Chessen has worked as a "data crisis counselor" at a company called DriveSavers. When she fields calls from the most distraught users with fried hard disks, Chessen borrows on expertise she gained as a suicide hotline counselor.

While she says only a few of her callers with failed hard drives broach truly suicidal thoughts, every caller is terribly distraught or angry or both. Here's how she calms down a caller, like the man who recently lost seven years of doctoral research while drinking his morning coffee.

1. Establish rapport. A crisis state makes someone feel like no one can understand why he's upset, which in turn makes him more upset. To defeat this cycle, Chessen must establish rapport and win the person's trust. She uses a technique called validation. "Don't say, 'I understand,'" she says, "because they're calling you because they feel like no one understands. Instead, use indirect acknowledgement. 'I'd certainly be upset too.' Or, 'That must be frustrating. You have every right to be angry.'" Chessen adds that you should never tell someone in crisis how to feel. Never say, for example, "You need to calm down," or "You shouldn't get this upset." She also speaks in a calm, even voice, which isn't always easy. When someone is yelling at us, our instinct is to yell back, match tone with tone. Chessen's ability to avoid this is second nature now. She breathes deeply and speaks calmly even as she feels her temper rising. Often after a challenging call, Chessen goes outside for some fresh air.

2. Listen for indirect keywords. Depending on the crisis at hand, Chessen is alert for certain words and phrases that might indicate a person is in profound distress. "Sometimes I'll hear someone say, 'If I can't get my data back, I don't know what I'll do,' and that's a tip to me," she says, as are such other statements as "This is hopeless" or "My life is over." "Other times it's more obvious. We got a letter that said, 'I need these files back, and if I can't get them I will kill myself.'" In every case, Chessen asked the person directly, "Are you considering suicide? Is this something you're thinking about?" In her current job, the answer is most often no, but it's critical to ask. "You must ask; you will not put the idea in their head, so you don't tread lightly because of that. If they're not thinking about it, they'll say no. And if they are, the fact that someone asked them to talk about it will be a relief and a release for them."

3. Give space and time. Next, Chessen lets the person tell his story. "Often they're shocked that someone's asking them," she says. But even here, she uses specific techniques. One is active listening. "That just means making sure the person knows you're part of the conversation by inserting yourself. Asking questions, and injecting verbal cues, like 'Uh huh' and 'I see.'" Another active listening technique is mirroring, which simply means you repeat to someone what they just said to you. "If they say 'I'm pissed my computer broke,' I say back, 'So you're upset that your computer failed. I'd be upset too.'" These techniques are more effective than one might suspect. "The average suicide hotline call lasts only 15 to 20 minutes," Chessen says. "Same here. What you find is people feel much better if they can just tell their story."

4. Use your expertise, but don't mislead. Chessen has built up expertise in the types of technical problems someone who calls her might have. When she's confident she knows what's happening with equipment, she can reassure the person. "I can say, 'It sounds like this might be the problem, and we can recover that kind of data 90 percent of the time,'" she says. It helps them to know the odds are on their side. But she also must acknowledge the 10 percent chance that the data won't be recovered. "If I don't, then I've broken that trust we've built up if that 10 percent chance actually comes true," she says. And that could send them into another crisis.

5. Explore alternatives and develop an action plan. Once you have enough information, you can help the person in crisis explore his options, both in the current instance and to avoid such situations in the future. Here, too, Chessen advises care. "I'm never going to say, 'Next time, back up your data,' even if that's the obvious answer, because what I'm doing is blaming them for what happened." What she can do is have a portfolio of resources, which may include backup products or services, plus information on how hard drives work or how data is recovered from them. From that portfolio, she builds a plan for moving forward. The more concrete the planwith tasks the person in crisis can do to ameliorate the situationthe better. "A crisis state is a short-term state," Chessen says. "The person in crisis is seeking equilibrium, and exploring alternatives helps them achieve that. It can get them to a point where they see a path to a solution when, at the height of a crisis, you never see any solution."

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