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Can you Relate?

Emergency Communications Operators need to be many things. A lot of the common personality traits among operators are a benefit to doing the job well. Ability to multi-task, listen while typing and structured thinking make them successful. Operators continue to improve with each call they take. Due to the crisis nature of most calls, an ability that can make the experience better for both the call-taker and the caller is empathy.


Empathy is a deep appreciation for another's situation and point of view. Although many of us have never experienced the type of situation callers are in, we can still appreciate their experience. Leland R. Beaumont defines empathy in several ways:

  • A respectful understanding of what others are experiencing.
  • Judging others by their own standards.
  • Sensing others' feelings and perspective, and taking an active interest in their concerns.
  • Wanting the best for all others, unconditionally.
  • The capacity to think and feel oneself into the inner life of another person.
  • Sharing another's perspectives and specific distress.

After seeing these definitions, I understood empathy was not having to share a similar experience with the caller, but being willing to validate the caller's experience and speak to them in a way which showed an ability to work within the caller's world. Unfortunately, especially with years of time taking 9-1-1 calls, it becomes easy to get cynical and sarcastic. I once heard an officer say, "Today's victim is tomorrow's suspect."

After several years of being an operator, I found myself falling into a frame of mind along those lines. Often, I would get frustrated with the caller and actually feel like they were wasting my time by calling. It was an unreasonable feeling when I thought about it but it was very real. I would get into a realm of thinking things like, "Well, if you wouldn't have (drank to much, dated a loser, etc), you wouldn't be in this situation." It was a matter of feeling better than the caller when in actuality I just had a different set of experiences. Yes, a lot of that was based on the choices I made, but this fact has little to do with being able to be empathetic. This feeling may come from Beaumont's explanation, "The ability to sense another's (sic) distress is an important survival skill. The danger distressing your companion may also be a threat to you. As a result, it is human nature to dislike seeing or hearing another's distress." He states there are three forms of empathy: cognitive, emotional and compassionate. As an emergency communications operator, we can do our job better by applying compassionate empathy which he defines as "want(ing) to help the person deal with their situation and emotions."

Empathetic Listening

On a base level, emergency communications operators listen for a living. People call, we listen and help them based on what we hear. In Gian Fiero's "The Art of Empathetic Listening," he explains:

We often confuse hearing with listening. Hearing is a natural function of the ear which involves the reception of sound. It's one of your senses. Listening is an acquired skill which involves the processing of words for the purpose of understanding communication messages from other humans. Listening is not something we are taught, and short of getting direct feedback from those we communicate with we don't have a way of measuring our proficiency. Due to this fact most of us have an exaggerated sense of how well we listen.

Honing empathetic listening skills, also known as active listening, takes our ability even further. Fiero explains, "Empathetic listening is characterized by a genuine desire to understand the words and the emotions of the messages communicated by others." He furthers, "When these messages are insufficiently received, there are usually several factors which prevent it. Thinking is the most common." Unfortunately, operators do not have the luxury of not thinking about what their response or the next question is going to be. We have to do this to be successful and get the information we need to keep citizens and officers safe. What we can do, is make sure after we ask a question, we are truly listening to what the person is saying. It's easy to miss something important that was said because in our minds we've moved on to the next required question. I've found myself feeling like I've just snapped back into the conversation I thought was routine (ok, there's no such thing), was moving into mundane details and realized, "I'm sorry, did you just say this was the father of your children and he has taken one without permission?" Or comments like, "I'm not sure this is important but he has a gun." By continuing to be engaged in the conversation from the beginning to the end, you improve each communication and make it safer for everyone.

Again, it's easy to get complacent in our communications with callers. In my opinion, ironically, those who are viewed as the best at their job (ability to get through calls quickly and efficiently) are the operators who struggle most with empathetic listening. The "Just the Facts, Ma'am" mentality gets the job done but misses out on the opportunity to connect with the callers. "If you are a naturally cynical, oppositional, negative, critical, insecure, close-minded, pessimistic, or self-absorbed person you will listen to others and process the messages they send you from the base of those emotions," Fiero explains. "Needless to say, such emotions will strain attempts at empathetic listening if left unchecked."

I'm not saying the goal of emergency communications is to assist callers with their emotional needs. We are not counselors. What we do have is a unique opportunity to be that first responder who makes dealing with a crisis a little more bearable to the person experiencing it. We shouldn't be making the situation harder. It's nice to know we are not only helping get a person the physical help they need, but also opening the journey to healing and moving past an unpleasant event. Fiero sums this up, "A little (genuine) concern in your listening efforts will go a long way and pay big dividends in your personal and professional relationships."