5 Statements to Avoid When Comforting a Crew Member

Author: IAFF Staff

December 1, 2019

When a crew member is having a challenging day, it’s natural to offer support and reassurance. After all, the fire service is about taking care of your brothers and sisters. Whether your colleague is coping with marital problems, received a bad review or experiencing post-traumatic stress, we hate to see the people we care about suffer.

Three fire fighters talking to each other in a small circle

Despite our desire to be supportive, we sometimes say things that can unintentionally make the person feel worse. Whether you are comforting a crew member on or off the job, words really matter. Here are five common communication pitfalls to avoid:

  1. “I know how you feel.” Even if you can relate to the problem the person is facing, claiming you understand his or her feelings can backfire. You may not truly understand what they are going through, even if you empathise with their situation.
  2. “It could have been worse.” While encouraging someone to positively reframe the situation may seem helpful, this statement can invalidate the person’s reaction to the situation that occurred.
  3. “It’s best to just move on.” To suggest someone should move on from a problem is essentially saying “get over it.” This is easier said than done.
  4. “You need to stay busy.” While activity does help us cope, telling someone to stay busy may discourage the downtime he or she needs to process a difficult event.
  5. “Try to calm down.” Telling someone to calm down may communicate that his or her feelings are wrong, inappropriate or more than they can handle.

So What Is the Right Thing to Say?

The key to being supportive is not about saying the right thing — it’s about being an active listener. Active listening is the art of truly listening to someone’s perspective or problem in a way that encourages them to open up. Active listening means staying in the present and simply listening without jumping ahead, offering advice or judging someone’s feelings as good or bad, right or wrong.

How Can I Be an Active Listener?

Keep these tips in mind:

  • Stay in the present. While it’s tempting to anticipate what a person is going to say next or what you should say, try to just listen.
  • Reflect, restate or summarize. Pausing to reflect on what you have heard to confirm that you’re getting it right shows that you are really listening and want to understand.
  • Pay attention to non-verbal communication. Posture, eye contact, facial expression and body movements often convey how a person is truly feeling. A study by researcher Albert Mehrabin exposed that only 7% of what people communicate is expressed through spoken words. Body language (55%) and tone of voice (38%) convey what’s really going on.
  • Empathize and validate feelings. Let the person know that how they feel is both rational and understandable. “I can see you’re really frustrated with the lack of support from your captain; it makes sense to me.”
  • Acknowledge you don’t have all the answers. Instead of jumping to fix the problem or offer advice, simply listen and express that you care.

To learn more about active listening and other peer support skills, see information on the IAFF Peer Support Training.

While active listening can play a critical role in getting someone through a rough patch, sometimes it’s not enough. If a crew member is consistently withdrawn, irritable, seems checked out or is not functioning well on the job, they may need to seek professional help.

The IAFF Center of Excellence for Behavioral Health Treatment and Recovery is a comprehensive treatment center designed exclusively for IAFF members struggling with addiction, PTSD and other co-occurring mental health problems. Call today for a no-obligation, free and confidential screening for you or a loved one.

Lauren Kosc, M.A., LCPC, is a behavioral health specialist, licensed therapist and blog editor for the International Association of Fire Fighters. If you are an IAFF member in recovery and want to share your story, contact [email protected].


The British Library. “Albert Mehrabian.” Accessed November 27, 2019.

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