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Chit-chat; shoot the breeze; gab; flap; chew the fat; gossip; blab. You think you know how to talk. Besides, you do it all day. On the radio, to colleagues, to the media, to your kids, and your spouse/partners. Sure, you talk. But, are you really saying anything?

Martin Heidegger coined the conversing that you and I engage in regularly as “idle talk”. That is, speech which brings about little change or benefit. Talking idly is what we do best. We make small talk about the weather (despite that you and your listener both know exactly what’s going on), about our favorite sports teams (the Leafs lost, by the way), and so on. Your day is largely made up of this type of conversation. And, it is this type of conversation that tends to leave you wanting.

For the most part, this communication goal is fine. It is, however, the main style of talking and therefore we tend to confuse this style with one that offers meaningful benefit to both the speaker and the listener. Therein lies the rub. Why do I need to learn how to talk?

Because in this way you can take better care of yourself. And, in learning how to properly talk you must also learn how to properly listen. These skills are the massive sized gap missing in almost all mental wellness interventions, both classic and more newly designed. “You’re not counsellors” you hear. This is of course true. Yet, this skill is so basic and necessary that we need to give it time and space to be learned by every single person. First responder or not.

Learning to talk, could save your life.

Not to be dramatic, but it’s largely true. This is why most awareness campaigns centre on the importance of talking after all. The problem with this move is that it doesn’t teach you how to talk. The next movement should be #Lets(teachyouhowtoproperly)talk. That might be too many characters, though…

Small Changes

Starting down this path to improving your life-saving communication doesn’t need to be a widespread existential destruction of your current being. Indeed, it will likely be more effective if you start really, really small. As First Responders, our initial instinct almost invariably is to try and fix the problem. That’s what we train day in and out after all. Fixing problems. So, the first small and yet surprisingly difficult task for you:

  1. Don’t try to fix it.

That’s right. Pay attention, and listen. Really listen. And, when you are done listening, do not give your well-meaning and perhaps even accurate advice. It’s harder than it seems, and yet this is one of the biggest parts of learning to communicate effectively. We wish to offer advice because we are uncomfortable when others are uncomfortable. We offer advice to eliminate two things: The conversation that we are currently having and the uncomfortable feeling that we are currently feeling. Often, as I tell those who I speak with, if you hear the phrase “All you have to do is…” or “Yeah, but…” the person did not listen to a word you said.

Think about it. This has happened to all of us and when it did, what was your internal response? Probably a feeling of dismissal. Or, perhaps worse, a feeling as if the listener didn’t care. This is the issue with offering advice. It often makes US feel better, not THEM. Don’t mistake me for saying that advice should never be given; it should be given when directly and clearly asked for it. Not as a reaction to hearing a difficult or emotional reflection from someone.

  1. Walk with them

One of the most powerful, stigma crushing change phrases that you might be able to utter is, “I don’t know what to say. I don’t even know what to do. But, I am willing to walk with you and support you in any way I can”. You do more good in this little sentence than with the majority of misguided advice provided.

Why? Let’s quickly dissect what happened there.

You open with honesty.

You are not a counsellor or therapist. And, therefore, it’s likely the 100 percent truth that you don’t know what to say or what to do. Own it. Humans tend to want to be helpful, and we’ll bend and flex in weird ways to provide people with the aura of this being true. When someone asks you for directions, what do you do? Well, the majority will likely start to think aloud. Or, perhaps, bring out our phones. All the while acting like we know exactly where the lost person needs to go. Next time someone asks you for directions and you don’t know where they are going, I dare you to say “sorry, no clue” and walk away. Honesty, when someone is truly hurting, is the best policy.

The second thing that honesty provides is the disclaimer that you don’t have the answers. The person doesn’t initially get a false sense of security with regards to what you can and can’t provide them. They understand right from the beginning that you are not an expert that can easily guide their hand through the mire of whatever emotional, psychological, or any other issue that they might be experiencing.

You identify that you are non-judgmental and don’t fear stigma.

It is no small feat to be able to conquer all of this in such a short, few sentences. But, when you suggest that you will continue to try and support them during this, just after saying you don’t know what to do, you’ve shown that person that why they are going through is important enough to remain connected and not “scary” enough for you to run away. The most important two traits, I think, are just those two as well: non-judgmental and honest conversations. You effectively break a lot of walls down when you relay this on to whoever has reached out for support.

  1. It’s normal

We all want awareness training for mental wellness. Yet, we want technician level training for Hazmat. Why? Because, we want someone else to have to “deal” with the emotional stuff and we want to show off our knowledge of chemical containment. Well, if we can’t change the outlook on this right away, we might as well use the awareness training that you have gotten. Let me quickly sum up the majority of “awareness” trainings for you.

You work in a career of trauma. You will experience “tough calls” and negative and scary reactions psychologically and physiologically because of that. That is normal.

One more time, with emphasis on the last bit: That is normal. You will have a plethora of interesting, scary, uncomfortable reactions to a call that rocks you. Sleeplessness, irritability, nightmares and a whole list of other reactions are to be expected not pathologized. If you experience these immediately after a tough call, relax. You probably don’t have PTSD. We wish and want so badly to address these issues, yet we’ve created the atmosphere that supports only discussing that four letter diagnosis. When, in actual fact, much of what is included in a PTSD diagnosis is a normal reaction to stress when experienced short term. It’s normal.

It actually continues to floor me, when I have someone reach out explain that they have PTSD and that they have gone “crazy” and are worried that they’ll have to hang up the uniform. I hear their story. And, I say, “You’re not crazy. What you’re experiencing is normal. In fact, expect to experience it for a few more days. If it lasts longer than a week, see a doctor.” Because, a diagnosis of PTSD requires 30 days of symptoms being present. 

What we see can be psychologically and emotionally confusing. Our minds and bodies work diligently and tirelessly to try and make sense of it all. That often results in experiencing those often cited symptoms. We need to give time to ourselves to overcome this. Spend time educating yourself just on the basic responses to stress. Then, when you see them, be sure to reassure them that what they are experiencing is indeed normal.

  1. Use emotion words.

It’s interesting to note that you will have a lineup of folks itching to be first through the door in a structure fire and yet, an entire room of strong folks will quickly clam up and grow quiet when asked to discuss emotions. I mean talking about real emotions, not just how angry you are. The current culture has placed a massive emphasis on remaining stoically composed in the first responder field. And, while this does allow us to complete our jobs with relative success (i.e. compartmentalizing the intense emotional reaction during patient care while family members are present), it has poor generalizability to our personal lives.

Yet, one of the key strategies to helping someone cope and overcome an intense emotional reaction is to be able to name what you are experiencing. You can practice by checking in with yourself during various parts of your day. Right now, while you read this for instance, ask yourself “what emotion am I feeling”. Dig deep, you’ll be likely wishing to say “nothing”. Work harder than that. Why? Because if you can name the subtle differences in emotional experiences for yourself, it will be easier for you to help someone identify it in them. You can, then, use those emotion words in a conversation with them. This will express to them that you are non-judgmental and honest and that you care enough to be able to empathize with them. That’s no small thing either.

Here’s a challenge for yourself. With one minute on the clock, write every emotion word you can think of. How many did you get?

Growing that list of words to include more and more while checking in with yourself during all of this will make you a massive asset to any peer that approaches you. And, with the stealth I’m known for, it has also just taught you the importance of checking in with yourself and identifying emotional states. A necessary component to taking care of yourself. If you are doing well, those around you will do well.

  1. Listen

This is an underrated skill. There may be some concern that listening is not important to talking, past the obvious need to hear the words that someone is saying. Let me help crush that thought. Here is a statement that I want you to look at

“I want to die”.

What comes to mind? What would be your first thoughts if someone said this to you, and meant it? Probably panic, especially if you haven’t had any training or experience with suicidal ideation. And this is made worse when it is from someone you know. But, with those assumptions aside there are a few of ways to decipher this that perhaps you haven’t thought of.

They are sick of the pain. And would happily not wish to die should such pain be removed. Getting them connected with someone, or in some cases just being open to talking, can help alleviate much of this. Add emotional compression over time, with the cultural pressures of being more stoic and the stigma around identifying struggling in the first responder field and you have an environment ripe for drastic expression for escape like above.

They can’t explain their emotion. Remember above how we discussed the importance of knowing your emotional experiences and being able to name them? This is an example of why that is important. Indeed, many folks that I have spoken with might use the above statement, but only as a way to try and convey the significant, negative experiences that they are having. Therefore, such a statement can be their way of trying to express the “overwhelmed” feeling that they are experiencing.

What do you, as a First Responder and peer, do with such a statement? Ensure that whoever says it is safe. If that means having to engage emergency services, then so be it. The above was not meant to training you in suicide intervention, but to show you the implications of having an untrained vocabulary. You can instigate the wrong type of attention and, in turn, the wrong type of intervention. And, ultimately, it is evidence to the power of being able to clearly convey what you are experiencing.

Listening through the words to hear the emotion underneath is 100 percent skill. This is something that you can learn to do, if you care enough and practice enough. Imagine having issues with discussing what is happening for you emotionally. Perhaps this is you currently! Well, if the naming emotion exercise wasn’t enlightening enough, I’m not sure what will be. Unfortunately, the majority of people that reach out for help are not doing it proactively. Their lives have reached a point where they can no longer ignore the maladaptive symptoms that are showing up for them.

By learning how to talk, you learn how to listen. By practicing both you become a non-judgmental and honest peer that can learn to listen through the words to hear the emotion underneath, opening the conversation up using emotion words. By validating and normalizing the experience for those who have come forward and by not trying to “fix-it”, the people who reach out to you learn that you care. Really care.

There, I told you that talking was more difficult than you thought. Despite, perhaps what your colleagues might identify with their inability to “get a word in edge wise”, there is a difference between ongoing, idle chatter, and deep and meaningful conversation that works to improve those engaged in such a conversation.

You are now “aware” of how to talk… but, are you willing to become good at it?

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