Achieving Contact

As a pastor or a worker in the church, we often have some kind of relationship with those who come to us for help in a time of crisis. Usually the person who approaches us at the church or when they meet us in another setting is already a member of our congregation and we have at least met. On other occasions, though, the individual who is seeking help may be someone we’ve never met before. They may show up at the church or approach us out in the community because they expect that the church or a member of a church staff  might be able to provide them with the help they need.

Whether the counselor knows the person who comes for help quite well or this is the first time that they have met , the first task when someone in a crisis situation comes for help is to achieve contact with this person.

touch Establishing a relationship of trust and demonstrating empathy are essential in many counseling situations and this is certainly true for crisis intervention. Since a person in crisis is normally less defensive, establishing a relationship of trust and empathy can happen rather quickly. In his book, Crisis Counseling, Howard Stone notes that two basic skills are needed to build this kind of relationship: offering attending behaviors and listening.

Attending Behaviors

Stone describes attending behaviors as the “physical, nonverbal acts that communicate interest and concern and help produce a relaxed and comfortable environment for people.” These behaviors communicate care and concern for the person in crisis. One of the basic ways we demonstrate care for another is by attending to their physical needs. Providing food or drink for others is symbolic as well as meeting real needs for others. When someone drops off a meal or a plate of cookies for a bereaved family they attend to more than physical needs. Offering a cup of coffee or a glass of water and providing a comfortable place to sit in a relaxed setting are important ways to demonstrate concern for others.

Glass of Water Body language can also communicate concern. We face the person we are talking to, we lean toward them slightly as they talk, we look them in the eye. Touch can be another effective way to show care for another person when we place a hand upon the arm, put an arm around someone who is deeply distressed or even offer something as simple as a handshake.

The room where the conversation takes place can communicate calm, confidence and openness. It is best if both the caregiver and the person in crisis can sit in comfortable chairs that are similar in height, facing each other. A closed door to shut out distractions and interruptions, a room that features comfortable temperature and lighting, a space that offers a opportunity for confidential communication and an area that is reasonably orderly all help to create an environment of care and concern. Recognizing the importance of setting means that we will seek the best place we can find to carry on a conversation with someone in crisis. It also influences how we arrange our office space. Whenever I have moved into a new office, I think about how I want the furniture arranged. for instance, I look for a way that I’ll be able to sit facing the individual who comes into talk without a desk or some other barrier between us.


The second skill that Stone finds to be essential for establishing a relationship of trust is the act of listening. When we give another person our undivided attention, we are demonstrating care and concern. In order to give such attention to a person in crisis, it is necessary to remove both the outer and inner distractions that can hinder us from careful listening.

Ear As we listen, it is necessary to discover two things: the presenting problem and the precipitating event. The presenting problem is what the individual names as the reason for seeking help in the first place. We can get at the problem by simply asking something like: “Why did you want to talk?” Sometimes, such points of entry are not needed because the person simply starts to pour out their problems.

It can often be the case that the individual can identify the symptoms that something is wrong, but they haven’t made a connection to the event that has precipitated the crisis. A good line is inquiry is to ask whether something significant has happened in the last couple of weeks. If a precipitating event can be identified, the pastor or counselor can be reasonably certain that this is a situational crisis that should respond to the approach being described. If on the other hand, if the distress that the person is experiencing is the result of recurring, persistent, long-standing causes, other kinds of resources will be needed to deal with the person’s circumstances.

Frequently, the source of stress lies in a relationship that is falling apart or failing to meet the needs of the person in crisis. Questions regarding significant relationships in the person’s life can help identify this stress.

The initial contact with an individual is an opportunity for them to experience some emotional catharsis. A pastor or other church worker can help the individual recognize and express strong negative emotions, including: anger, hostility, guilt, anxiety and grief. These emotion can distort the individual’s perception of himself or herself.

hope Before the first contact is finish, it is very important to build a sense of hope. This can be communicated both verbally and nonverbally. It is important to move as quickly as possible when dealing with a crisis situation. It is in the first days and weeks that change is most easily achieved. We want the person in crisis to feel that resources can be brought to bear to help deal with the crisis situation.

Even though the conversation might end at this point, it doesn’t need to. If there is time, the elements that we will look at in the next posts, namely boiling down the problem and coping with it, can be pursued. What we are describing is a process that unfolds in its own way, not a series of steps. Sometimes it will require several sessions to move through the process, but on occasion most of it can be handle at one time with just a follow up to make sure that the methods of coping with the problem are working out for the person.

The key in the first session is establishing rapport so that an atmosphere of empathy and trust develops. By the end of the session we want the person to leave with a word of hope from us that they will be able to deal with the situation effectively. If we can to that, we have begun the process of dealing with a situational crisis.

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About Arlyn Norris

I write for anyone who likes to reflect on faith and life, but especially for pastors who serve small to mid-sized parishes. I am a person who enjoys prospecting for new ideas, looking for new connections and constructing new frames to understand what I discover. I draw on nearly 40 years of experience as a parish pastor and over 60 years of life experience.

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