Helping Others to Feel Safe During Crisis

Whether you want to improve your relationship as a coworker, friend, neighbor or parent, here are the first three questions to ask yourself to become a safer person, both in the community and at home. Tips courtesy of Dr. Matt Swensen, child and adolescent psychiatrist at Intermountain Healthcare, and Everyday Strong.

1. Do other people feel safe to talk with me?

Imagine starting to have a heated disagreement with a family member about current political events, and then the other person stops talking. They silently start to nod, raise their eyebrows and look contemplative. You start to feel less tense, and your own language becomes calmer and more polite.

Swensen suggests that during emotionally charged conversations with children and teens, adults imagine placing invisible duct tape over their mouths. Active listening and silent communication can help youth feel listened to and understood, he explains. When we see youth act out with defensiveness or insistence, it may be because they don’t feel safe to honestly speak about their challenges, feelings and ideas.

But this “duct-tape strategy” doesn’t just apply when speaking to children. All individuals benefit when they can openly share their experiences and feelings. Whether we’re old or young, online or in-person, strangers or old friends, we can all do better to actively listen to each other and resist the urge to interrupt or prescribe quick “solutions.” And the more we practice hearing and processing each other’s perspectives at work, at school or online, the easier it’ll be to do at home.

2. Do I make it safe for others to feel and express emotion?

When our jobs, school routines and normal home lives are thrown into disarray — such as what’s happened during the COVID-19 pandemic — the resulting stress can understandably make people feel anxious, angry or uncomfortable. Allowing ourselves and those around us to safely feel negative emotions is a key principle behind creating an environment that feels safe in uncertain times.

When we see a child “acting out,” our first impulse is usually to reprimand. But the EveryDay Strong Resilience Handbook explains parents should first acknowledge how emotions are OK and normal, and then take a moment to build connection, before we work on helping children express emotions in a healthy manner and redirecting impulsive behavior. These steps may be beneficial for similar scenarios in our workplaces and communities when emotions run high, though never at the expense of your own or others’ safety.

When you see your child, coworker, or a stranger experiencing strong emotions, particularly negative ones, remember that emotions are like indicator lights on a vehicle. The emotions themselves aren’t the problem, but rather indicative of something wrong beneath the hood. And sometimes, waiting too long to check those emotions can lead to a breakdown when we’d least expect!

3. Do others feel safe to be themselves around me?

Every person has the emotional need for respect and recognition. For students, the EveryDay Strong School Resilience Handbook advises teachers to “see strengths in students” despite “the very human temptation to focus on others’ weaknesses or shortcomings.” We can also apply this advice beyond the classroom.

One way to “see strengths” in our homes and workplaces is to express appreciation and love for quirky, unexpected or unusual behavior, as our handbook suggests. Another way is to avoid labels and to avoid focusing on others’ weaknesses, which can be more easily said than done in today’s politically and racially polarized climate.

“Sometimes even really good (people) say things like, ‘Well, (that person’s) just lazy,’ or ‘They’re unmotivated,’ or ‘They don’t care,’ or ‘They’re manipulative,’ ” Swensen says. “But this name-calling nonsense? It has got to stop. It is not helpful. And it’s not true.”

When we negatively label both strangers and those we love, he says, we limit our ability to recognize when others are truly doing their best. “If you believe Maslow’s hierarchy, you have to believe that people want to be good. Let that sit for a minute,” Swensen urges. “People want to be good. If people are not acting good, it’s because their needs are not being met. You have to trust that when we meet their needs, people will thrive.”