Listening in a crisis

As crisis communications professionals, we always get asked what we should be saying
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By Tom Adams

There’s no way around it. Having difficult or emotional conversations is not an enjoyable experience. What’s worse, we often don’t practice or prepare adequately for them. We don’t prepare because we trick ourselves into thinking that we are either naturally good or bad at these conversations based on our perception of our own skills and characteristics, life experience or seniority. This mindset leads to one of two approaches:

  1. I am good at these types of conversations, so there’s no need to prepare
  2. I am bad at these types of conversations, so there’s no point in preparing


As crisis communications professionals, we always get asked what we should be saying – but we very rarely get asked about the other side of the coin. Listening.

In difficult or emotional conversations, we must remember that listening is as important as speaking – if not more so. Practicing your active listening skills, which can be done in everyday life too, provides a sure-fire starting point to improving your communication skills during a crisis.

Here’s a few tips you can try to make yourself a better listener:

Paraphrase: After somebody has made a point, attempt to summarise or ‘paraphrase’ their point back to them. This can help build rapport and evoke the feeling that a person has been ‘understood’. There is the added benefit that if you paraphrase the point incorrectly, you open the door for them to further clarify their position. Accurately paraphrasing somebody gives you both an opportunity to reflect on that position and provides a useful yardstick for moving the conversation forward.

Labelling: Sustaining a highly emotional reaction for a long period of time is incredibly difficult for the body to do. As such, emotional reactions are often short lived – but they do require time to settle. Attempting to communicate your point during this period is unlikely to succeed, and so you should rely on your listening skills instead. Try ‘labelling’ how the person opposite you appears to be feeling. A phrase like, ‘you sound really frustrated’ can be a good a way of showing that you have understood how they are feeling about a particular situation. Again, if you mislabel an emotion, it opens the door for that person to tell you how they are really feeling.

Silence: It is uncomfortable for two people to sit in silence, particularly during an emotional or difficult conversation. As a result, people often feel a compulsive need to fill the silence, perhaps with a reassuring comment, a question or a proposed solution to a problem. As an active listener, you may benefit more from the use of silence. If you can maintain your silence, it’s likely to prompt the other person into offering more information that may prove useful – whether it’s more detail about their perspective or a new position. Furthermore, even if silence drags on, it can allow the necessary time and space to allow a particular situation to ‘breathe’ and strong emotions to begin dissipating.

Try practicing these skills in your own life, and you’ll be taking steps toward being a better communicator in crisis.

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