By Sarah Saunders, Telecommunicator, Grays Harbor E-911, IPSA Member
There are times a telecommunicator must speak to callers in crisis. They may have to calm a caller, negotiate with a caller, or keep a caller from hurting themselves or someone else. This article provides some useful tips for building rapport with all callers.
One of the crucial steps to managing a caller in crisis is to establish rapport. Merriam-Webster defines rapport as “a relationship characterized by agreement, mutual understanding, or empathy that makes communications possible or easy.” Rapport is a relationship of trust and mutual influence. While nothing about a caller in crisis is easy, the establishment of rapport is an important step.
To develop rapport with a caller, there are easy steps that can be used to help get the caller the best help in the quickest amount of time. Start by getting the caller’s name and give them your name. Use the caller’s name when addressing them. This often will help ground them, get their attention, and bring them back to the conversation.
The longer the caller is kept on the phone, the better opportunity the telecommunicator has so they can de-escalate the caller and preserve life, while building trust and rapport.
Once you have the key basic details, let the caller talk.
When callers are interrupted, they may get the impression that they are not important or what they are saying isn’t important. Pay attention to what the caller is saying and repeat it back to them.
Make sure to label their emotions. For example, “When you said that you don’t matter to anyone, you sound sad and frustrated.” This allows the caller to know you heard them, and you are taking the time to understand what they are saying. It also allows the caller to correct you if what you labeled or understood is incorrect.
Find common ground
People like people who are like them. Finding commonalities also helps you build rapport.
Telecommunicators can attempt to find commonalities by talking about things they do well, things they like to do, something they have always wanted or wanted to do or something they appreciate. When a telecommunicator finds a commonality, that does not trigger the caller, it is a good idea to pursue that topic further.
Pay special attention to your caller’s hooks and triggers. A hook is something that your caller wants to talk about. It does not upset them, and it helps keep them talking. This is especially important when the caller is wanting to hang-up to kill themselves or others and you need to keep them talking on the phone. Hooks will vary by caller. They could include topics such as things they enjoy doing, a musical instrument they play, their love for hiking, or the dog they keep mentioning. Any time the caller keeps mentioning something, explore that further.
A trigger is something that is upsetting or distressing to the caller. It should be immediately apparent when a line of questioning or topic is triggering to your caller. Telecommunicators need to be able to identify when this is occurring and then avoid the topics, if possible, and steer the caller back to a line of conversation that is safe.
Triggers vary by caller, but often include family or friends, work, or a specific incident. Triggers often include things that the caller feels are out of their control. Just remember to be flexible as emotions are always changing and each caller will be different.
Telecommunicators can also make a scene more volatile and dangerous for emergency responders. If a telecommunicator is unable to establish rapport or continues to trigger a caller, they are likely to be agitated and unwilling to follow responder’s instructions.
The author once dispatched a call where the call-taker angered the caller by calling him sir, and refused to stop. Things escalated so quickly, when officers arrived on scene, the subject had barricaded himself inside his residence and was making threats toward the officers and himself. While this is an extreme case, it shows how a telecommunicator’s actions can and do make a difference when officers arrive on scene.
Don’t be the reason why officers are faced with contacting someone that is agitated and uncooperative.
Building rapport is the most important step for a telecommunicator to begin the de-escalation process, and it is even more important when you have a caller that is resistant to law enforcement or emergency response. They may say things like, “If you send the police, I will kill myself.” Once you have successfully established rapport with a caller, they will typically cooperate and understand why the telecommunicator had to send a police or emergency response.
Part of building rapport is allowing your caller to talk and felt heard. This may mean that telecommunicators are going to hear things that they don’t like, don’t want to hear, are disturbed by or don’t agree with. Callers in crisis often have pent up emotions and feeling. They may use profanities, yell, scream or cry. Let them, it is cathartic, and the caller needs to feel validated and heard.
Dispatchers are the critical link that connects callers to much needed help, and effective rapport building skills will only make this link stronger. Building rapport with callers takes time, but it is worth the effort.
Establishing rapport serves to calm your callers and makes them more willing and able to follow your directions. Building rapport is also important for responder safety. As already mentioned, callers may be resistant to police response. This resistance can be overcome by building rapport. This helps the call-taker and the responders and can ultimately aid in a peaceful ending to a very volatile call or event.
About the Author
Sarah Saunders first sat behind a dispatch console at thirteen years old and has been dispatching full-time since 2001. Throughout her career, she has worked in multiple roles in Arizona and Washington, including dispatcher, trainer, supervisor, training coordinator, tactical dispatch team supervisor, certified instructor, systems security officer and CISM team member. If you have any tips to share or want to provide feedback, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.