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.
December 01, 2005 — CSO —
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."