In crisis intervention, most of what we do is 'just talking to people.' At least, that is what it looks like to an observer. As we shall see, though, our talking to people is but one level of what is really going on in the process. (Also see CRISIS INTERVENTION, We are coming to an understanding of the precipitating event while developing judgments about the now potential and the self resolution factor. We are developing a crisis definition and formulating intervention hypotheses. Throughout the process, we are evaluating our intervention and are being alert to potential cumulative effects and other unseen effects. We are actively involved in the crisis intervention process.

At another level, we are carefully and sensitively listening to the person's communication to us. We hear him, we are trying to understand, and we want him to know we care. The understanding that comes through listening is, however, not passive. We are actively involved with the person, affecting and being affected by him, and intentionally and intently working toward his being able to deal with his difficulties. As we talk about crisis communication, then, we will see that our talk is really not just talk. It is a special kind of communication that requires sensitivity, self- awareness, compassion, and concern for the person and honest empathy with his crisis involvement.


In crisis communication, there is a communication loop in which messages, ideas, feelings, and so on are sent out by the person in crisis, picked up by you, and returned to the person in a slightly modified and clarified form. Understanding this communication loop and the techniques involved in modifying and clarifying these messages, ideas, and feelings represents an important and valuable skill when working with people in crisis.

First, we need to consider the interactive nature of communication and of helping relationships. At an abstract level, a person in crisis is internally experiencing various and sometimes conflicting feelings, emotions, impulses, urges, and so on. Within the person, then, is a confusing and possibly disturbing mix of things that contributes to his feelings of uneasiness and crisis. Second, we want to help him feel better and become better able to deal with his situation. Within us are a variety of skills and ideas, including a knowledge of the crisis intervention process. Somehow, the person needs to communicate what is going on within him. At the same time, and this must be emphasized, we need to make our knowledge and skills available to him.

The person in crisis needs to translate his feelings, emotions, ideas, and so on into messages and convey those messages to us. We will, in turn, need to decode the messages, interpret them in light of our knowledge and skills, and respond to the person. He will then take in our response and send us another message. This interactive process of messages and responses represents the communication loop.


For the people in crisis, crisis communication must lead to modification and clarification of their feelings, emotions, and ideas, thereby enabling them to better deal with their present situations. In any crisis situation in which our intervention hypothesis directs us to focus on an individual, our goal is to help him modify, clarify, and cope with his feelings and thoughts. Our skill in and knowledge about dealing with feelings and thoughts need to be made available to the person for his use in understanding and coping with his own thoughts and feelings. Before we became involved, he was dealing with his feelings and thoughts through his own internal communication process. It is, then, our goal to become a part of that internal communication process by letting him 'use us' to supplement and support his own communication skills and capacities.


The communication loop also operates at a somewhat different level, involving our becoming a part of the person's 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.


Crisis always has a mood or color. The psychiatric literature frequently refers to this dimension of people in crisis as 'affect.' In crisis communication, color refers to the mood or disposition of the person in crisis. Does he seem depressed, angry, agitated, anxious, fearful; how would you describe the person's mood? Using colors is a convenient way to communicate information about a person's mood or affect and to describe and understand the three major or most observable moods or affective states.

Crises can be angry or red. The now potential of a red crisis is that the person may act out his anger, really hurt someone, make a mess of things for himself or someone else. This now potential combines with the fact that the extreme anger disables the person and makes the self-resolution factor quite low. In a red crisis, then, our goal will be to reduce the now potential by softening the anger and allowing the person to 'talk it out' enough to begin to look at his feelings and at alternative ways of dealing with them. As he begins to think and feel with us, the self-resolution factor will increase.

It is important to think about the interpersonal, emotional mix that develops in a red crisis. We are interacting with someone who is agitated, very angry, and on the verge of acting out those feelings. The risk or potential is that he may act out that aggression in destructive and possibly self-destructive ways. It is as if the pressure were building up and moving closer to what may seem like an inevitable socioemotional explosion.

How do we feel when we are involved with someone who is in a red crisis, then? Our feelings begin to merge with those of the person in crisis, resulting in our becoming uncomfortable and moving away from all of the anger and intense negative emotion or toward confrontation of that emotion in a direct and controlling manner. We begin to become agitated and feel pressed toward action. The natural tendency is, then, either to move away from the person or confront him in a controlling and over-powering manner. It is as if we become engaged in a 'fight' or struggle. Our negative energy then exacerbates or intensifies that of the person in crisis, with the potential being a negative, reciprocal interaction that fuels the crisis as opposed to managing it.

As we can see from the way the reciprocal interaction operates, our feelings, impulses, and reactions become a set of signals to us that we are dealing with a red crisis. We can observe the person in crisis but also can be aware of our own internal conflict and emotions. The combination tells us both the nature of the crisis and how we may most effectively respond to it.

What do we need to do? We need to relate to the person in a way that does not fuel the crisis and does not serve to exacerbate or intensify his emotional turmoil. The key is first to manage our socioemotional responses and reactions. We will refer to this self-management as blue intervention.

A crisis may be yellow. In a yellow crisis, the person is afraid, anxious, and 'really uptight.' The crisis is yellow, like a blazing fire. People in yellow crises are frequently crying and typically seem desperate. They are very nervous and may tremble. They may make us feel very protective, as if we want to hold them and tell them things are going to be okay. They seem like frightened, very upset children. In a yellow crisis, people frequently tell us that they feel confused and that they cannot think straight. Everything seems to be falling apart around them. All of their anxiety and nervousness may make us feel a little frightened, at a loss as to what to do, and somewhat overwhelmed.

The feelings we are experiencing when dealing with a yellow crisis represent the negative, reciprocal interaction and alert us to the need for first focusing on self-management. The contagious nature of emotions and socioemotional confusion is such that we can get pulled into the negative flow of the crisis.

Alternatively, we can manage our own reactions and responses in a way that 'hooks' the person into our more even and better managed socioemotional mix. The idea is that we either naturally and somewhat inevitably move toward the socioemotional mix of the person in crisis or manage ourselves in ways that result in his moving more toward where we are in socioemotional terms.

The now potential in a yellow crisis is that the person may do almost anything to escape the hurt, the confusion, the pain of being so anxious and uptight. He does not understand what is happening to him and frequently feels like he may be losing his mind. A yellow crisis is an extremely uncomfortable and emotionally painful state. It is like being in an emotional fire; and people will try anything that occurs to them as a possible way of escaping. In crisis communication, our goal when dealing with a yellow crisis is gradually to calm and put out the fire. If we are able to do that, the person will be better able to think calmly and rationally about his situation, i. e., the self-resolution factor increases.

A crisis may be black. The person is down, very down. His words come very slowly; his movements are slow. He sees no point in anything. His just being alive makes things worse. He does not want to kill himself. He just wants to stop living, to get out. He is tired of playing the game. The hassle is too much. His mood is very black. He is slowing down and has no interest or motivation in going on. As we talk with him, his speech may seem somewhat slurred and his words may have a thick and 'mumbly' quality about them. The person seems exhausted, appears to have no energy, and may give us the impression that he either wants to or is about to go to sleep. The negative, reciprocal interaction operates to cause our mood to gradually darken and turn black. We begin to feel frustrated, uncomfortable, and feel pressed to keep from getting pulled into the black crisis. We feel like we want to separate ourselves from the person and his black mood.

We generally experience this first as a vague discomfort or uneasiness. We may feel frustrated and feel tempted to terminate our communication with him. It takes all of our effort and concentration to pay attention to and focus on the person and his crisis. Black crises are seen considerably less often than red and yellow crises; however, they are by far the most difficult with which to deal.

The now potential in a black crisis is the death of the person. Such a person may stop eating, stop taking care of personal and health needs, and generally let himself physically and emotionally deteriorate. The goal of intervention in a black crisis is gradually to elevate the person's mood, get him interested in and more connected with his environment, and stop the process of withdrawing and 'turning in.' If we are able to do this, the person will begin interacting with us and gradually move out to interact more with his total situation. This increases his ability to get out of his black mood.


As you acquire experience with people in crisis and with crisis situations, you will realize that crises usually are a mix of red, yellow, and black. It is important to see that crisis color refers to the mood or affect of the person in crisis. As we talk with him, we usually see that his mood tends to fluctuate. Occasionally, we will see a person who starts out very angry-who is in a red crisis. As we talk with him, his anger gradually softens and becomes less intense; but his mood or the color of his crisis never appears yellow or black. Similarly, we may occasionally see a person experiencing a yellow crisis, and as we work with him, he is gradually able to calm down, become less anxious, and generally think more clearly. Throughout this process, however, we may not see his mood turn to anger or his crisis turn black. In addition, a person in a black crisis may gradually become more animated and involved in his surroundings without reflecting any red or yellow dimensions to his crisis. More typically, however, crises fluctuate between red and yellow, and less frequently between red, yellow, and black. The important thing in crisis communication is for us to understand and tune in to the mood or color of the crisis but remain sensitive and responsive to shifts in color or mood.


As we begin to understand the significance and meaning of color in crisis, we will see that our mood or color is an extremely important dimension of crisis communication. We are familiar with such expressions as 'The life of the party,' 'Laughter is contagious,' and others suggesting that our mood has the power to affect or infect. People in crisis may cause us to feel angry, anxious, depressed, indifferent, and so on, affecting our mood by the power of their own. The converse is also true. Our mood or tone has the power to affect or influence the mood of the person in crisis. For example, if we respond to anger with anger, the person in crisis will tend to become even more angry. If we respond to anxiety and fear by becoming anxious and fearful, the person will tend to become even more anxious and afraid. If we respond to the immobilized mood of a black crisis by becoming emotionally immobile ourselves, it will have the effect of making the black crisis even more black, to whatever extent that is possible.

Our mood or color is, then, an important dimension of the crisis intervention process and is an important aspect of crisis communication. If we know that anger begets anger, it is important for us to respond to a red crisis in a calm, even-tempered way. If we know that confusion begets confusion, then it is important for us to respond to a yellow crisis in a concerned but thoughtful manner. If we know that depression begets depression, then it is important to respond to a black crisis in a friendly, interested, neutral to somewhat positive manner. Since we know the kinds of mood or tone that tend to exacerbate or irritate various kinds of crisis situations, it is important for us intentionally to avoid making matters worse. We do this by consciously and sensitively controlling our mood or color in a way that has the best and most desirable affect on the person in crisis.

Our response to a crisis should always be in shades of blue, i. e., we always want to convey a mood of calmness, a sense of control, a feeling that we understand, care, and will be able to help the person resolve his crisis.

There are several techniques that will be especially useful in managing our moods in general and more particularly managing the negative, reciprocal interaction. As we begin to engage with the person in crisis, we may manage our responses in terms of the rate, tone, and volume of our speech. Increasing the rate or speed of our speech has the effect of conveying increased interest and involvement and also conveys increasing agitation and discomfort on our part. The key is to first match our rate of speech with that of the person. We generally talk as slowly or as rapidly as he is talking. We then very gradually speed up or slow down our rate of speech, depending on which direction we want the mood of the person to move. Importantly, we use this technique on a general basis but also use it on a more specific basis at various points in the intervention. Sometimes, we want to speed things up a little and sometimes we want to slow them down a little. We do this by managing the rate of our speech.

Next, we manage the tone of our verbalizations. Sometimes, we convey a somewhat brighter and more positive or optimistic quality while at other times conveying a somewhat more dulled and neutral quality. Importantly, we do not want to move into the negative or down range. Although it is somewhat difficult to describe in words, we manage the tone of our speech by increasing or decreasing the energy level reflected in our speech, increasing or decreasing the pattern of inflection within our speech and moving between a more positive and more neutral pattern of expression. To work on developing this technique, it is useful to observe people in conversational situations. Doing so will result in a feel for variation in tone.

We may also simply vary the volume of our speech by talking more loudly or more quietly. Again, developing the technique is best done through first matching the volume of the person and then gradually turning up or turning down the volume, depending on which direction you want him to move. As you develop more skill with the technique, you will find that managing the volume of your speech within a range that is comfortable for you will work best. As your skill increases, you will simply stay within your comfort range, avoiding artificially talking more loudly or more quietly than is comfortable for you.

In addition to managing the rate, tone, and volume of your speech, you will also want to attend to your nonverbal behavior. Two techniques are important here. First, you can manage your level of animation or motor activity. As you work with the person, your activity level can vary from your remaining almost motionless to your being fairly animated and active. Developing this technique starts with matching your activity level with that of the person in crisis and then moving in the desired direction. As you develop confidence with the technique, you will gradually confine your level of activity within your comfort zone, becoming more or less active or animated within that range.

Next, you can manage the physical separation between you and the person. Interestingly, the more he is in or moving toward a red crisis, the greater the physical distance between you and him should be. The more he is in or moving toward a black crisis, the smaller the physical distance should be. For people in yellow crises, the distance is related to the intensity of the yellow crisis. The more intense the crisis, the greater the initial distance should be, with being closer more appropriate for milder, yellow crises. As a rule of thumb, more than six or eight feet away from the person is never appropriate, with a distance of less than two feet being closer than would be appropriate as a starting point. Generally, the appropriate range is within a two to six feet range.

How do you decide how close is appropriate? First, be sure that the degree of closeness is based on judgment and is not a response to how you are feeling. For example, when dealing with a person in a yellow crisis, it may be tempting to get very close, while, during times of red crisis, the temptation may be to move away. When deciding how close is appropriate, the key is to understand that here you deal with the person's comfort zone instead of yours. The goal is to be physically close enough to convey interest and concerned and to get and hold the person's attention while being sure that he retains a sense of integrity and control with respect to his personal space. The key is to find the edge or boundary of his personal space and then to avoid going inside that boundary without his permission. Being inside his space only comes as a result of being invited or receiving explicit permission.

Experiment with developing skill at determining the boundary of the personal space of other people. To do this, involve yourself in conversations with a variety of adults, adjusting the physical distance and watching the reactions, comfort levels, and general behavior of the people with whom you are interacting. If you are alert to the goal of engaging the person while maintaining their comfort level, you will gradually develop a good feel for managing the physical distance between you and people with whom you are interacting.


In crisis communication, an important part of our goal is to make our skills and abilities available to the person. We have made our mood or tone available to him in a way that helps him calm down and plan ahead. In the same way, we can make our skills and knowledge available to him in terms of thinking, questioning, considering, and planning. For example, people caught up in the emotions of crisis are usually trying to think about and concentrate on what to do about the situation. Their thoughts and ideas about what to do are generally motivated by a very emotional and somewhat confused notion of what happened. When we ask them, 'What happened?' we are asking them to think more clearly and objectively about what caused them to be so upset or confused. The question 'What happened?' gently encourages them to begin to think about their total situation in a more reasoning and systematic way. If they were not so upset, they would probably be figuring out what happened themselves instead of using all their energies thinking about what they are going to do. Our questions, interest, and calm concern gradually nudge them to use their own thinking and planning skills. They start out by using our questions, our way of systematically looking at their situations, and our skills at thinking through problems. Our skills and knowledge are available to them and they use these as a means of getting in touch with their own skills and knowledge. Basically, we become a part of their communication process, asking questions, giving focus to problems, helping them to be more systematic.

From this perspective, it is important to see that we want to involve ourselves in an active way that adds to or supplements the skills, capacities, and abilities of the person in crisis. We do not want to take over or replace the person in the crisis. We simply want to add to what he has going for him in a manner and to the extent that is sufficient for the purpose of managing the crisis. At times, we will take a more central role and at times we will take a more peripheral role. The balance is based on our judgment about the person's degree of crisis management success at any point and with respect to any particular element or factor within the crisis.


How do we help people in crisis deal with the content of that crisis? We gently encourage them to become involved with us in the assessment set. First, we want to think with them about the precipitating event and what happened. We know that the conflict is in the interaction and that the precipitating event disrupted the interaction between the person and his total situation. We also know that the precipitating event occurred fairly recently. It may be true that the conflict has been going on for a long time; but the crisis was precipitated by a fairly recent event, a worsening of the conflict, some exacerbation of the difficulty in the interaction.

Frequently, people in crisis will not be particularly receptive to this notion. They will want to blame themselves, see the cause as originating in the past, or more often than one might think, try to convince us that the crisis has no cause.

Our understanding of crisis and of the crisis intervention process lets us know that crises always have a precipitating event. In crisis communication, then, we gently but persistently encourage the person to think about himself, his situation, and the interaction between him and his situation until we both can see what caused the crisis. Usually, discovering and understanding the precipitating event is not particularly difficult. Sometimes, though, we must be very patient and skillful to get to where both of us understand 'what happened.'

We can see now that the assessment set is not for our benefit or information. Rather, it is an important part of crisis communication. As such, it helps the person assess his crisis and helps him gradually start to use his own thinking and planning skills. Once we have enabled him to analyze and understand the precipitating event, we gradually start developing our 'picture' of the crisis. We think, with the person, about the most important aspects of his situation, himself, and the interaction between himself and his situation. Through this process of looking at the person, his total situation, and the interaction, we can gradually come to understand the conflict in the interaction in relationship to the precipitating event. This, in turn, helps us better understand the present crisis.

Importantly, this understanding is not for our benefit. The goal is to help the person understand his situation, the interaction, the conflict, the precipitating event, and, thus, the crisis. The communication content helps the person in crisis think more clearly, analyze more thoroughly, and plan more carefully. He uses our skills to enhance or supplement his own skills.


Once we are sure that the person has not neglected any important responsibilities or overlooked some important undesirable consequences of the present situation, we will help him think through possible ways of dealing with his present crisis. With him, we have come to an understanding of what happened and of what is happening. Now we will help him focus on what is likely to happen. We are now beginning to make our planning skills available to him. As he gradually begins to calm down, slow down, think things through, and plan ahead, we are nearing the end of the crisis intervention process. The now potential is substantially reduced and the self-resolution factor is rapidly increasing. Within the communication loop, we have effectively combined crisis color with crisis content and moved toward the goal of crisis reduction.


Crisis color tells us something about the person as a whole person in the present situation. Communication feeling has to do with the specific messages conveyed back and forth between you and the person in crisis. As we looked at the content within the communication loop, we saw that each message has a factual or objective meaning. Each message also comes with its own specific feeling. For example, a person in crisis may be very angry. His crisis may be red. However, this does not necessarily mean that he is angry about everything and everyone. In fact, there may be some people, events, or situations involved in his crisis that make him feel good, smile, or feel pleased. Even though the person's mood may be predominantly anxious, afraid, angry, or depressed, it is not necessarily or usually true that he is upset about everything and everyone. Similarly, some things may be making him feel fearful while others make him feel guilty; some things may make him feel angry while others make him feel apprehensive.


The development of this interactive model of crisis communication shows crisis content and crisis feeling as separate but interrelated aspects of the communication loop. In actual crisis situations, however, it may be helpful to think about content and feeling as parts of a message clarification process. The person has ideas and feelings that he wants to communicate to us. He somehow puts these into verbal and nonverbal messages that we have to interpret. How do we go about decoding or interpreting his messages? We want to know what he means and how he feels. As we begin to communicate with him, then, we might deal with each message by first clarifying the meaning and feeling. We could say to him, 'I hear you saying that things happened this way.' We then restate what we understood him to have said. Having done that, we say, 'If that is what you meant, it seems like you feel this way about it,' and tell him how we think he feels. He has given us a message, and we have responded by telling him what we understood him to have meant and how we think he feels about it. This helps him think about what he meant and what was involved in the situation as well as getting him to focus specifically on his feelings. If we have accurately understood and 'read' his feelings, he will go on to give us another message. If not, he will clarify his meaning or feelings. With each message, we can go through this process of restating the meaning and feelings, letting him clarify and restate if we were wrong. We continue back and forth until we really do understand.

To extend the point one step further, we can see that the process of message clarification helps him think more clearly about what is going on and helps him clarify his own feelings. He has used our skill and ability to enhance his own ability to understand and think through his thoughts and feelings.

By Gary A. Crow, Ph.D. March 23, 2017