The emotions of a crisis: From the outside

A crisis, by definition, must be out of the ordinary, it must be challenging… unpredictable
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By Dustin Eno

At the very moment that the pressures of a crisis may make the crisis management team (CMT) least able to communicate clearly and effectively, people outside the organisation will be most desperate to hear from that team.

As challenging and emotionally taxing as a crisis is for the CMT, it can be far more so for outsiders. From the friends and families of those directly impacted to the people watching from shore and fearing that their livelihood, health, home etc. will be destroyed.

A crisis, by definition, must be out of the ordinary, it must be challenging, and it must be unpredictable, but each of these criteria is subjective and a crisis for one person may be routine for someone else. For example, if you break both your legs, it is a crisis for you and your loved ones, but for the paramedics and doctors who assist you, your crisis will likely be routine and almost boring.

Similarly, the soft grounding of a vessel which is dealt with by your emergency management team (EMT) without even mobilising the CMT isn’t a crisis for your company, but may still be experienced as a full-on crisis by the junior watch-keeper who was on duty and by the fishermen looking on and fearing the worst.

Crises are scary, and fear simultaneously makes people less rational and more inclined to believe the worst. Problematically, fear also often leads people to look for someone to blame and punish and, in many cases, that ends up being the shipping company.

Good crisis management training will usually start by referencing a company’s plans, but to be effective the training should focus on both sides of the emotional management coin – self-awareness and empathy. Together these aptitudes are sometimes called emotional quotient (EQ).

Self-awareness: Learning to manage one’s stresses, reactions and thought processes under pressure will give an individual and their team the best chance of communicating calmly and effectively with others. A great way to develop this skill is through frank and open discussion moderated by an experienced crisis responder. Such discussions should be included in crisis planning and more importantly in post incident washup/debrief sessions.

Empathy: Identifying and understanding the perspectives and emotional states of the others in a crisis is vital to effectively communicating and managing their fear so as to avoid the aggressive backlash of blame-seeking. One of the simplest empathy techniques is to visualise a specific individual who is impacted – i.e. instead of trying to empathise with “fishermen”, visualise Frank, a 44 year old, second generation fisherman, with two young sons who just took out a mortgage on the family home to pay for a new engine on his fishing boat in hopes of a better season next year. It’s much easier to understand Frank’s emotional state than that of “fishermen”.

Processes, templates and procedures must always be a vital part of crisis planning, but if planning fails to consider the psychological implications of a true crisis, the best plans and processes in the world will quickly be blown out of the water by the emotions of the humans involved.

Crisis EQ training

James Wilkes of Gray Page and Dustin Eno of Navigate Response have teamed-up to create a one-day course for crisis response teams and senior decision makers which focuses on the human and interhuman factors involved in dealing effectively with a crisis. For more information please contact or

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