The #1 skill to have in times of panic

Imagine the following:

You’re on the phone with a volatile gunman who’s got their weapon pressed to the head of a terrified hostage.

The air’s heavy. The tension is high. Everyone’s listening. And one wrong remark could lead to the worst possible scenario. In situations like this you don’t have the luxury of fumbling, stuttering, or dropping the conversational ball.

When every word is life or death, you quickly learn there are no “throw away” words or “casual” statements. Everything you do and say has implications.

Now, I get that this may be an extreme scenario (and I apologize if it caused a rise in your blood pressure like it did to me). But throughout Chip’s 22 years as an FBI Special Agent and hostage/crisis negotiator, it’s something that he’s personally lived through his fair share of times.

And coming out on top in high-stakes situations like this has taught him a very important lesson about what you need to do when everyone else is freaking out (especially when the freak out is warranted).

It’s a critical concept that we can apply at the dinner table or in the boardroom. It can help us get a team (or an entire organization) back on track. And it will help us be the example that others can follow when it all goes down.

Not only that, it’s something I’ve personally relied on throughout my extensive experience working in crisis and in both the Infectious Disease Society of America and the Emergency Nurses Association on the Ebola outbreak (which won the association industry’s highest award).

And it’s especially relevant when a certain virus that shares the same name as a popular beer brand has our senses impaired in a whole different way.

See, much like an actual bank robbery, our senses get hijacked when a significant stressor barges in and threatens our everyday lives.

But this time the criminal with the ski mask and gun is right between our ears, pressing the gun right to our amygdala and sending our entire system in a frenzy.

In other words, we get consumed by a dominating emotion (usually fear or anger). And when this happens our brain tells the adrenal glands to release cortisol and adrenaline into our bloodstream.

We’re left in a state of panic, shock, and disarray. And the effects are anything but imaginary.

In fact, our body sends many of its primal systems screeching to a halt. Our hearing becomes limited, our field of vision also diminishes, our fine motor skills are significantly reduced, our heart rate increases dramatically, and our breathing becomes rapid and shallow.

And this is the last thing we want to have happen to us in the workplace.

That’s where a crucial concept like de-escalation comes into play. It’s something that can make-or-break how we respond in crises and stressful situations.

Simply put, it’s the act of calming ourselves down, taking back control over our emotions, and getting our higher analytical brain back online.

Because only when this is done can we help others do the same.


So how can we do this?

Here are two techniques Chip personally uses when times are tough and tension is high:

Phone-A-Friend: Share your experiences with someone who is somewhat removed from the crisis event you are going through. Knowing they are listening will aid in the brain to stop calling for cortisol and adrenaline to be released. Being able to distract yourself away from the stimuli causing you the extreme stress will also help the higher brain to come back online.

Go for a brisk walk: Exercise will aid the body in removing the chemicals from the bloodstream. Physical activity will also produce endorphins which will aid in your overall improved mood and will allow the brain to better focus on creative solutions.

Remember – you can only help others once you’ve helped yourself.

Then, after you’ve gotten yourself back into a steady state of mind, use the following hostage negotiation techniques to help others get there too. These are proven practices Chip has personally used on the field and are extremely helpful no matter what the situation is:

Emotional Labeling: People in a crisis need to know someone is listening and cares about what they are experiencing. An incredibly effective way to do this is to name the emotion you believe they are feeling. You could say ‘it sounds like you are worried things won’t be the same as before.’ Even if you don’t get the emotion right, the effort they see you making is huge in helping them feel heard.

Forensic Listening + Empathy: Dial into the other person’s concerns by listening closely. You can do this by repeating the last three words someone says, paraphrasing their concerns into your own words, summarizing what they’ve shared, and asking open-ended questions. Then, combine this with Empathy – show that you seek to understand what they’re feeling without any judgment whatsoever.

Apologizing: Say that you’re sorry for what someone else is going through. This isn’t about sympathy, but rather showing that you recognize the gravity of what they’re going through. Your tone of voice is critical here – if what you’re saying doesn’t come across as genuine then it’ll just backfire and you’re better off not saying anything.

Acceptance: No one person experiences an event the same way, and everyone will typically have their own individual emotional response. The important thing is not to judge someone for how they are reacting to the event.

Demonstrate Calm: People move in the direction you model. When others look to you for an answer, take the time to connect with where they are and lead them to where they need to be. Again, authenticity is key here. Show that you understand and are taking some sort of corrective action.

And remember – while things might seem scary right now, the worst part of any crisis is the internal damage we create ourselves. So take the time to help yourself and then do your best to help others after.

Keep calm and carry on,

Adele Cehrs and Chip Massey

Listen to a client talk about how we helped them through a crisis. Don’t go it alone – we can help!