This article was originally published on Psychology Today on March 9, 2019.
3 basic helping skills that would help President Trump be comforter-in-chief
The President’s latest disaster response on the ground in Alabama after the recent tornado has once again been nothing short of disastrous. Instead of offering survivors the hope of real relief, President Donald Trump decided that signing sacred texts like a celebrity would sign a souvenir was what would benefit survivors.
When the president of the United States (U.S.) visits a disaster zone or issues a message about a recent disaster, you know it’s serious. U.S. Presidents play an important role in the disaster recovery process as commander-in-chief.
However, it is an acting president’s ability to be comforter-in-chief that may be even more important to our country’s ability to weather catastrophe.
President Barack Obama’s moving eulogy in the aftermath of the Charleston church mass shooting helped our country mourn and cling to hope following senseless mass violence. After 9/11, President George W. Bush solemnly walked alongside first responders amidst the debris and reminded our country that we are stronger together.
With President Trump, we get neither commander-in-chief nor comforter-in-chief—only celebrity-in-chief.
As a Katrina survivor, disaster psychologist, and disaster scholar that has collaborated with FEMA, I continue to be alarmed by President Trump’s comments and inability to lead during times of crisis.
When previous U.S. Presidents have visited areas ravaged by disaster, their attention is on the needs of the victims and survivors of the tragedy. When President Trump visits areas ravaged by disaster, he sadly keeps his attention on himself.
Here are three basic helping skills that I wish President Trump would rely on instead of his celebrity the next time he touches down in a disaster zone.
One of the ways you can help disaster survivors is to identify and connect with their experience.
Be present with survivors—push aside internal and external distractions.
Ask about the survivors’ needs and how they are doing.
Convey genuine concern and warmth.
Remember that each person you encounter is unique and valuable.
Offer compassion, not just the appearance of compassion, by being genuine.
There are things you can do to demonstrate a posture of attentiveness, openness, and warmth that will increase the odds that the survivor will feel safe to express their concerns, struggles, and needs.
Physically orient yourself to the person to whom you are listening (e.g., squarely face the person, open your posture toward them, lean in, make eye contact, relax your body).
Pause, take a deep breath and focus on being the best listener that you can.
Show curiosity and genuine concern.
While they are talking, do not worry about what you’ll say or do next.
Use open-ended questions.
Repeat back paraphrases to affirm what you’re hearing them say.
Offer reflections of feeling, content, and meaning to be sure you’re tracking with what the survivor is telling you.
Survivors find comfort in feeling understood, and it is important to affirm the survivor’s experience.
Acknowledge the difficulty of the situation and what they are going through.
Show accurate understanding of their experience by reflecting back what they’ve shared.
Look for strengths in the survivor, and, when appropriate, affirm those strengths and provide encouragement.
Help survivors understand common reactions and struggles associated with going through a disaster.
Remind them that they are not alone and that they are stronger together.