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When Crisis Strikes: How to Use a Tactical Empathy Approach

By |February 19, 2024

When it comes to our negotiator personalities, I find that we take on traits of different personalities particularly as we get older. I’m an Assertive, and I tend to also be a bit of an Analyst and sometimes an Accommodator. 

For a long time I struggled with discovering what my personality type was. I always asked Derek Gaunt, “What’s my negotiation personality? How do I know?”

“What’s your bear in the woods?” he asked. “What’s your knee-jerk reaction during a crisis?”

I used to think my reaction depended on what the bear was—different situations would bring out a different reaction. However, Derek would remind me that the bear is the crisis that exposes the raw reaction. 

And then, on the day my daughter was born, the real bear showed up in the hospital.

Does your negotiation strategy fit their personality? Use this guide to  negotiate successfully with anyone »

The Bear: Fight, Flight, or Make Friends

When I was pregnant with my daughter, I was tested to see if I was a carrier for cystic fibrosis. It came back positive, but because my husband didn’t detect as a carrier, it wasn’t a concern. “You won’t have a child with cystic fibrosis—it would be like being struck by lightning twice, extremely rare.”

On the day my daughter was born, about a day after I had delivered, the doctors came into the room. Something was off.

“We noticed you’re a carrier of CF. Your daughter still has the stool in her intestines, which can happen when people have cystic fibrosis. We want her to be seen at a more advanced hospital so we’re going to send an ambulance.”

They reassured us: “This isn’t a big deal. It’ll probably be fine.”

I was on the personal side of a crisis. I’d been a detective, I was used to dealing with trauma from the outside perspective; now I was in the middle of it.

They kept telling us: “It’s not a big deal, it’s probably nothing—don’t be worried.”

Then we heard the chopper. 

We instantly turned into two cops instead of two parents. Alert, skeptical. An older nurse came in and said, “It’s gonna be fine, honey, it’s gonna be fine,” when she saw I had started to cry. But, in my mind, cystic fibrosis was a death sentence. I’d grown up hearing about CF in the 90’s. My interpretation was a slow, miserable death at an early age, and I was holding the beautiful baby I just had. 

“It’s going to be fine,” she said again. 

The bear had arrived.

I was a police officer. I was a hostage negotiator. I’m well-versed in negotiating, I’ve been trained. None of that mattered when the bear came into that hospital room that day.

Shouting, I said, “It’s not going to be fine. Do you have children?”

“Yes, I have children,” she said softly.

“I am holding a baby. Do you remember when you had your baby? If someone told you that there was a possibility that your baby was going to die at 15 (my perception at the time) from cystic fibrosis, would you feel fine? Would you accept the assertion that it’s going to be okay? That’s not okay.”

The nurse burst into tears. 

“You’re right, it’s not okay,” she said. 

When the bear in the woods came, I did what an Assertive does—I didn’t run, I didn’t make friends, I fought. 

It’s okay to not feel okay.

I’m not proud of how I handled that situation—it was the wrong way to go about it. From the negotiator’s point of view, from that situation, I realized afterward that we have to be sensitive to another person’s environment. We’re complex people. It’s okay to say something isn’t okay. 

We don’t have to try and fix it. 

When you try to fix a situation, sometimes it demeans the other person’s feelings. It demeans the hurt—and you need to be able to feel the hurt. 

The situation isn’t okay…but it’s okay to not feel okay. 

The hospital nurse was a kind person; she was just trying to help me. The challenge for us is that we don’t always know how to reach people in crisis. The crisis makes us uncomfortable. We don’t know how to communicate. We want to make ourselves feel comfortable as fast a possible, by providing a solution, so we resort to “Everything’s going to be okay.” 

What Tactical Empathy™ can show us, in those moments, is how to handle painful situations like this. 

This is about them, not you.

When someone is in crisis, Tactical Empathy is vital. Remember, it’s about them. What do they need? It’s not about making yourself feel better by telling them it’s going to be okay—because that’s not always what they need. It’s not always true and seems disingenuous. 

When there’s a diagnosis, people are filled with fear. It doesn’t have to be as severe as CF; any medical diagnosis, even ADHD, is hard to deal with. It’s a shift in someone’s reality. Their “normal” is changing and they’re grieving the change. How can we help people who are in those situations? Let them talk. Let them feel things in the moment, and don’t try to fix it. 

Pay attention to their emotions. If you’re sensing terror, Label™ it. Imagine if that nurse had said this to me:

“This must be the scariest thing you’ve ever been through in your entire life. You’re holding the most precious gift from God…and all of a sudden you’re being told your baby is going to be ripped from your arms.” 

If I had heard those words, I probably would have sobbed—but I wouldn’t have screamed at her. Perhaps, that nurse might have learned that I had sat in auditoriums as a teenager, hearing horror stories about people with cystic fibrosis, in that moment, that’s all that was running through my mind.

That’s the difficulty; we feel the need to take our own reality and project it onto someone else. However, people are unique, and have grown up in unique circumstances; they have their own fears and their own perceptions. It is uncomfortable to witness someone going through a crisis, and so we instantly want to fix it and make it go away. In these situations, you may think, “How do I talk to someone dealing with something like this…when I have no idea what to say?”

The beauty of these skills that people often miss is that they don’t need to have an answer. Let the other person guide you. Because even if you’ve been in a similar situation, your experience, your perception, your world, can’t compare to someone else’s situation; crises are unique. 

The best way to help someone is by using Tactical Empathy. To trust your gut, listen, and stay curious. It’s about sensing what the other person needs…and most of the time that’s as simple as needing to be heard. 

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