Psychologist: Listening the most important part of emotional first aid

By Chicago 5 Min Read

CHAMPAIGN — Ed Fitch remembers walking to his car with son Tyler while picking him up from football practice one day.

With head down, shoulders slumped and a plodding walk, Tyler exhibited all the body language of someone who was not in a good mood.

After he got in the car, he let out a big sigh.

Fitch offered, “You look like you’ve had a rough day.”

His son then launched into a mini-tirade about how dumb his coach was.

Dad listened. That was the most important part. His job was to help his son talk about what was going on.

“My rule is listen, listen, listen and then talk,” he said.

A former professor of psychology at Lincoln Trail College in Robinson, Fitch calls it “emotional first aid,” a subject he spoke about frequently in community workshops throughout Southern Illinois.

“My belief is that as a society, we do a pretty good job training Mr. and Mrs. Smith in some basic tools to assist others who are in physical distress — first aid, CPR,” Fitch said. “Emotional distress is far more common, yet we as a society have offered no training to help the average person deal with friends or family who may be suffering.”

He will talk about the topic at 1 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 11, at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in Champaign.

Fitch, who now lives in Champaign, said his emotional-first-aid workshops started slowly in the Robinson area before they caught fire.

After a while, he was traveling throughout Southern Illinois delivering the message.

He learned that one of people’s biggest fears is that they might do harm if they respond in any sort of meaningful way to a person experiencing an emotional crisis.

“My job … was to help them understand if they followed a few guidelines,” it would be OK, he said.

While most people are geared toward giving advice. Fitch stressed that that is not a good idea, “because if you give good advice, they become dependent on you. If you give bad advice, they get mad at you,” he said.

And finally, just because you solve an issue a certain way doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the right way for the counselor to serve the problem.

When Fitch did private-practice counseling, he discovered that most men end up asking, “Aren’t you going to tell me what to do about this?”

“I would say ‘The way I would resolve it might not be appropriate for you,’” Fitch said.

Women, however, primarily wanted someone to listen to them.

Talking things out often helps the person see the situation more clearly.

“People come in just overwhelmed with a problem,” Fitch said. “They’re so revved up thinking about it they can’t really focus on the potentiality for resolving the issue. They can’t see the possible solutions because there’s so much noise in their head.”

Not everyone is cut out to administer emotional first aid, in Fitch’s estimation.

They have to have the right human qualities to be a helper — caring, accepting, nonjudgmental and empathetic.

If you have those qualities, then the rest is technique.

That includes making eye contact, leaning toward the person, sitting and facing them, and maintaining an open posture.

“If you have those things, that’s going to encourage them to open up and talk,” Fitch said. “Once they begin talking, I teach people to begin with what we call ‘content reflections,’ sort of clarifying things, saying back to the person whatever they have just said to you. ‘Did I hear that right?’”

Fitch said for people to open up, it’s important that they feel safe.

“As you demonstrate those things, they feel comfortable enough to go even deeper,” he said. “I’ve had clients who would talk to me for 50 minutes, and then the last five minutes would disclose the real reason they were there. They want to check you out thoroughly before they bare their soul.”

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