The work of emergency communications personnel is emotionally charged. Whether it’s working with callers, field units or fellow coworkers, the emotional dimension is often the most individually impactful, yet also the most overlooked. In fact, a career in public safety necessarily causes each of us to be less empathetic and less perceptive when it comes to understanding this hidden side.
Working with people who are experiencing traumatic situations, as an emergency communications professional does every day, changes one’s perceptions of the world, and can even make you “feel dead inside,” as one 9-1-1 dispatcher succinctly put it. Coined “emotional numbing,” it’s the natural consequence of working in this helping profession. We’re required to put some emotional distance between ourselves and the nature of the work, if we are to survive. Overtime, this distance become larger, more pronounced, and automatic. As a coping strategy, there’s nothing inherently wrong with intentionally distancing oneself from the chaos on the other end of the line. When this distancing unintentionally takes over, however, and prevents us being effective, both at work and at home, then it’s something to note and take preventive steps to thwart.
Over the past few years, I’ve had the honor of learning from a collection of inspirational leaders at 9-1-1 communications centers across the United States. These “People Driven Leaders,” as I’ve coined them, have several key characteristics in common, despite being from various walks of life, different corners of the country, and very different professional backgrounds. One of these common characteristics is a keen understanding of the emotional dimension of their work. Everyone of these leaders is highly emotionally intelligent.
In their book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0, Drs. Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves define emotional intelligence as one’s ability to recognize and understand your emotions in yourself and others, and your ability to use this awareness to manage your behavior and relationships. Emotional intelligence is a rather intangible “something” in each of us. It affects how we manage behavior, navigate social complexities, and make personal decisions that achieve positive results.
Daniel Goleman, who wrote the first book coining the term, puts it succinctly:
“Some of the reasons [why emotional intelligence is important] are patently obvious— imagine the consequences for a working group [in the comm center, for example] when someone is unable to keep from exploding in anger or has no sensitivity about what the people around him are feeling.”
When we’re upset, we make bad decisions and say things we later regret (and in this industry, it’s sometimes on a recorded line). Said in another way: stress makes us dumb, and without understanding its impact on our emotional makeup, life for ourselves and our coworkers can be made even more challenging.
While the popular literature is not based on nor directed solely at communications centers, it’s obvious, based on the definition offered above, why emotional intelligence is so important for our industry. Based on my research, emotional intelligence empowers line personnel to navigate the challenging work with greater ease, and allows leaders to adeptly work with the people side of things to improve culture, morale, and retention, as a result.
A Success Story Come True
Becky Bacon, the Director at Christian County Emergency Services in Missouri, is highly emotionally intelligent. Hired in 2016 as the Deputy Director to handle day-to-day operations at her medium-sized comm center, she used her people-driven approach to completely change her new center’s culture. Though they had never been fully-staffed, they hoped it was possible. Past experience proved otherwise, but it didn’t deter Becky from trying. She really cared about making a difference at her center; so, she took the time to look at the deeper issues creating the center’s problems.
She began by talking to her people. She got to know them. She learned about their motivations, their strengths, weaknesses. She found that some didn’t know what they were “meant to do.” Young employees couldn’t see where they needed to go because they’d never been shown before. Becky took it upon herself to show them, in terms they could understand and respect.
It took a year of sitting down with her people, asking questions, and insisting on consistency before she really started making changes. Prior to Becky’s appointment, some supervisors did things their own way, creating confusion throughout the organization. They would share the information they wanted to share, the way they wanted to share it (albeit in not the most effective way). This behavior persisted because it hadn’t been addressed before. The supervisors were offered trained on how to communicate effectively. Further, Becky demonstrated this aptitude for communicating with tact and sincerity so others could model it.
Over time, the old habits changed, allowing the changes Becky was implementing to take root. And because her employees felt she had invested in them before attempting changes, she had built the foundational that enabled changes to take place.
As the changes unfolded, Becky maintained strong communication with her staff. Her goal was to be transparent at all times. Transparency through communication was just one aspect of Becky’s overarching personal mission, which was going the extra mile for her people. This exemplary leader knows that you can have the best equipment, but if you don’t have the people—and they aren’t trained and happy—it doesn’t matter at all. As she said in our conversation, “we all have ‘too much’ work to do. You must be willing to take the time to get the right person in the right place. We’re all going to fail otherwise.”
With this philosophy guiding her daily actions, Becky succeeded. Within 16 months of starting with the organization, the center was fully-staffed.
The wonderful thing about emotional intelligence is that it can be learned. It’s an edge we call can sharpen. If you’d like to make a bigger positive impact at your center, and in the lives of those you interact with on a daily basis, begin today practicing the following five EQ- improvement techniques, and watch your effectiveness take a turn for the better:
- Observe the ripple effect from your emotions. When you’re frustrated or having a bad day, how does it affect the way you interact? Do you notice you’re less patient with coworkers? Do you avoid difficult conversations? Being in a leadership role, your actions and words are amplified while you work with others. One negative interaction can spread your frustration like wildfire.
- Know who or what pushes your buttons. We all have hot buttons. Being aware of them so you can work with them or avoid them altogether will prevent you from reacting and saying something you’ll later regret. When emotions take control, it’s much more difficult to respond productively.
- Breathe right. The breath is always with us, beckoning us back to the present moment. The problem is, most don’t breathe properly, only taking tiny sips of air into the upper chest. Try a couple of deep breaths into the lower belly right now, and notice how you instantly feel more relaxed.
- Practice the art of listening. What’s your listening style? Are you merely waiting for the other person to shut up so you can reply? Or are you actively engaged in the exchange? Notice your thoughts, body language and how you respond the next time you’re speaking to someone.
- Explain your decisions, don’t just make them. When your employees feel left in the dark, the rumor mill kicks into high gear. Transparency and openness, on the other hand, make people feel like they are trusted, respected, and connected to the center’s larger purpose.
In time, these behaviors will further your ability to build trust and loyalty, even in the most demanding situations.
About the Author:
Adam Timm is the president and founder of The Healthy Dispatcher. A 9-1-1 telecommunicator with the Los Angeles Police Department for over a decade, Adam now provides leadership training and consulting to PSAPs around the country. He is the author of three books, including the popular, Dispatcher Stress: 50 Lessons on Beating the Burnout, and, “People Driven Leadership: How the Best 9-1-1 Centers Inspire Positive Change,” both available on Amazon.com.
For more articles visit: https://thehealthydispatcher.