Nothing leaves a more lasting impression at work than the way we talk to each other.
This is true of nearly any workplace scenario in which talking is necessary – but it’s especially true when we are communicating with each other under duress in a 9-1-1 center. When we are at our most raw and vulnerable — during or after a critical incident or when we’re new to the job – anytime the stakes are highest and the stress is at its most fierce, our communication can be at its most vital AND volatile. Speaking with contempt or with derision (unintended or not – it doesn’t ultimately matter) in these moments leaves an indelible mark. Angry or hurtful communication while under duress has consequences for the future: sides will be chosen. Personalities will be judged and labeled. Borders will be drawn. Cooperation will be stilted if not outright stopped. The way we think of ourselves and others will begin to become cemented in our mind. It can be said with some certainty that condescending to a fellow dispatcher when they are most vulnerable can irreparably harm that relationship, altering the effectiveness of our critical work from that point forward. It is often here that workplace tribalism sets in, creating permanent warring factions that undermine teamwork to the absolute detriment of the critical service we are there to provide.
Seem harsh? Think about your 9-1-1 work history for a second. It shouldn’t take you long to find an incident you can’t shake, regardless of the passage of time. It was, no doubt, tied to communication which demeaned you or condescended to you in some way.
I certainly remember mine. It still makes me angry, some 29 years after it happened.
In 1994, a veteran employee called me stupid (and whacked me in the head with a rolled-up magazine for good measure) for the way I handled a fire dispatch during a critical incident. She looked me in the eye and, with dripping condescension, harangued me with volume and intent (I can still see and hear it with astonishing clarity). I was young, both in general and in the profession, and already mortified by the idea that I might do something unintentionally catastrophic every time I took a call or dispatched an incident. I, like trainees and new employees in 9-1-1 centers to this day, was at my most vulnerable. That veteran employee’s words made sure from that point forward that she was “the bad guy” to me. It affected the way we worked together for many years after, and I’m embarrassed to admit that my work suffered because of my residual anger toward her. Our communication from that point forward became a series of one to two-word requests and answers. Eye contact all but ended for the next many years. As soon as she arrived at work, it was as if an ominous storm cloud suddenly emerged, blotting out the sun. I caught myself checking the schedule to see when she worked so that I would know if I could possibly have a good night or not. Normal work stressors that come with being new in a 9-1-1 center were completely exacerbated at the sight of her. In hindsight, it all seems a bit ridiculous. But I stillfeel the anger, the hurt and the distrust that came from that condescending, hateful statement at a time I so desperately needed support and reassurance.
Such is the power and the responsibility of the way we communicate under duress. And duress is the name of the game in 9-1-1. This is why we must begin to understand and take charge of the way we talk to each other in our comm centers. Now, I’m not advocating for a harmonious kumbaya scenario in which we all join hands, sing sweet songs and head out together after work because we can’t bear the thought of a single moment without each other. There will always be some folks that you work with who you wouldn’t invite to dinner even in the best of times. But working successfully with them depends largely on their perception of how you treat them – and vice versa.
Our end goal here is simple: maintaining a coworker relationship vs. having a years-long work-enemy. Speaking to each other with respect will play a significant role in getting AND keeping you there.
Have a similar story? How is it still affecting you today? What can you do to make sure it doesn’t repeat for others? Let’s hear your story in the comments below!
About Kris Inman:
Kris Inman is the Director of Program Development for The Healthy Dispatcher. After a 28-year 9-1-1 career which included the last three as a director, Kris joined THD in July, 2023. An awarded speaker and instructor, Kris has delivered standout educational sessions, keynotes, motivational talks and yoga instruction to dispatchers across the country. He also teaches leadership and communication courses at Drury University. Kris holds a Master of Arts in Communication and a Bachelor of Science in Electronic Media from Missouri State University. He is also a registered yoga instructor.