The communication loop also operates at a somewhat different level, involving our becoming a part of the individual’s own communication process. We serve as a rational, objective, feeling, caring sounding board for his feelings and ideas and as an emotional filter through which his feelings and ideas can pass. Hopefully, this filtering will make his feelings and emotions more manageable and less disruptive and result in a lower likelihood of eruption and possibly destructive outcomes.
In Chapters 7 and 9, this process of working with the feelings and emotions of people in crisis will receive detailed attention. The notion of filtering feelings, though, is basic to dealing with crisis situations. Think about the fact that it takes at least two people to have an argument. Someone is extremely upset and angry with you. He is accusing you of being irresponsible and of making a mess of things. Your natural temptation is to become defensive, try to explain your behavior, attempt to reason with him, and as a last resort to attack him, accusing him of being insensitive and unreasonable—and, anyway, the difficulty is probably his fault. Suppose that the problem was that you were eating popcorn in the living room and had made a mess. Your wife discovers the mess and accuses you of being irresponsible, setting a bad example for the children, making more work for her, and really not caring about her feelings and how hard she works. Obviously, she has had a bad day, and your making a mess was the final straw. Instead of becoming defensive and trying to justify your behavior, you say, “I’m really sorry about making a mess. I am sorry that I have made you so angry with me. I can tell you’re really mad about this, and I don’t blame you.” You would never say that? Why not? When people attack us, we are “supposed to” defend ourselves. Anyway, she is making a big deal over nothing. What do you think her reaction would be if, instead of getting angry or defending yourself, you simply “absorb her anger” and tell her that you are sorry? She will probably be at least less angry than she was initially. You have managed to keep the conversation focused on the problem—the popcorn in the living room. As the two of you think about the problem, she will probably calm down, and both of you, for example, could clean up the mess. You have avoided a serious argument, and had that argument followed the pattern of most blowups, you have avoided getting into other problems. Arguments tend to start over something minor and then move from topic to topic. It is common for people to report that they had a “huge argument,” but they are not able to remember what it started over. In the case of the popcorn, you have filtered the intense feeling out of the conversation. This enabled you to focus on the real problem: the fact that your wife was upset about having to deal with “one more mess.”
Just as you were able to filter the anger out of the conversation, you can filter the feelings of people in crisis. To do this, you start by acknowledging the feeling. You let the person know you understand why he or she is upset, angry, afraid, confused, depressed, sad, and so on. In many ways, this requires a somewhat unnatural emotional response on your part. We usually reflect the feelings of other people. If someone is angry, we become angry; if he is afraid, we become apprehensive, if he is sad, we become sad. In crisis intervention, we avoid reflecting the feelings of the individual in crisis, that is, we do not feel like he feels. Instead, we attempt to absorb or filter their feelings. This lets them get past the intense emotion and lets them think with us about the problem and about possible solutions.