Have you ever heard yourself say “I don’t know why I’m crying right now” or “Sorry, I didn’t think I’d get all emotional about this”? It can be so embarrassing and frustrating, right? Whether you are asking people to fill out a questionnaire or collecting their story, it can happen to anyone and there are simple steps you can do to reduce the negative impact for them AND yourself.
When I was collecting oral history interviews for the National Film & Sound Archive I remember an actor being asked once, a very seemingly safe question about his career. He was an older man, had a great career both in Australia and overseas. “Wow, why didn’t you take this role overseas that you were offered? I always wondered that, it would’ve been a great role. It was at the height of your career, everything was fabulous. Why didn’t you take it?” The actor replied, after going white and sitting bolt upright, that he and his wife had just had a stillborn baby at that time. And so they decided they needed to return to Australia for them both to recover.
Whether you are asking people questions in a service assessment/intake interview or you are collecting stories for research or promotional material it is your responsibility to prepare for emotional responses.
1. Check Yourself
Reflect on your own responses to displays of emotion. Do you get really uncomfortable when someone suddenly bursts into tears? Do you shut people down?
Do you instantly want to make them feel better with “Oh, I’m sorry I’ve upset you. We can stop now. We don’t need to do this anymore.” Or are you okay with sitting with emotion? How do you deal with angry outbursts? To help others with their stories we need to understand our own and that includes our stories around displays of emotion.
2. Forewarn & Reassure
Forewarn and reassure people that emotional responses are common and that you are okay to sit with that emotion (if you are!). ALWAYS have tissues handy – it reduces the panic and humiliation of having tears (okay and snot) running down their face in front of you. Tissues are your friend.
3. Prepare Support Systems
Have support systems in place BEFORE you head into any story seeking situation. Think about support systems you already have in place and what you can offer them. This could be as simple as asking them who they may speak with after you session with them or giving them a list of helpline numbers. This goes for you too – what are YOUR support systems (both professional and personal)?
4. Be prepared for the disappearing act
Share your plan, should emotions bubble over. This includes giving them support numbers before you start. Have a plan for follow up and an avenue to finish what it is they were trying to achieve in talking with you in the first place. While you may feel you have relieved them of the emotional anguish, not finishing something because of being emotionally overwhelmed leaves people feeling defeated and frustrated. Do you have a plan in place for unexpected aggressive behaviour? Everyone’s safety is number one priority.
5. Learn to sit with emotion
Be patient. People appreciate being reassured that they can have time to regain their composure and get out what they are trying to say. Also that they can continue, or they the choice to stop, to have a break and come back.
Because YOU are a human too this preparedness will assist in reducing burnout and vicarious trauma. By having an understanding of our own reactions to emotional responses we are better able to meet others where they are at and therefore be in a better position to support them in a dignified manner. Incorporate these steps into your communication skills and everyone benefits from a more enriched experience.