I can’t find the words... How to communicate with internally displaced persons without causing harm - Move2Armenia

I can’t find the words... How to communicate with internally displaced persons so as not to cause harm

I can’t find the words... How to communicate with internally displaced persons so as not to cause harm

Thousands of Artsakh residents forced to leave their homes are finding shelter in cities across Armenia. These people are tired, scared, confused, because they left for the unknown. Someone may be angry, angry, someone may be depressed and silent, and everyone needs an approach, careful communication. But it can be difficult to find words and tone if you have never encountered someone with so much grief. 

Maria Goncharova, PR manager at Move2Armenia, said that her neighbor accepted 15 people into his house. She wants to help them, but at the same time she doesn’t know how to more tactfully offer help, what it’s better not to talk about. In this article we will collect instructions/memo that will answer the questions of Maria and everyone who interacts or will interact with displaced people from Artsakh.


  1. Rules for Conversation
  2. How to establish communication
  3. What you should and shouldn't talk about
  4. How to understand that you need the help of a psychologist
  5. How to offer help

Rules for Conversation

  1. First, assess the emotional state of the victim and adjust your own behavior and tone. If a person is depressed, it will be difficult for him to perceive an active and overly sociable interlocutor.
  2. Not everyone is ready to trust and share their experiences with a stranger, so you must first tell about yourself: who you are, what you do.
  3. By asking questions, you can explain why you are interested in a particular topic. This will help the victim open up and understand your intentions.
  4. Make sure the refugee feels heard, understood, valued and respected. Communicate as equals.
  5. Speak calmly and patiently.
  6. Don't use a patronizing tone or look at the person with unnecessary pity.
  7. During the conversation, actively show your involvement and interest to win over the interlocutor. Nod, make eye contact and stay away from your devices, ask questions and give constructive feedback.
  8. To demonstrate that you listened, understood, and that the conversation is important to you, paraphrase and repeat what he/she said.
  9. Be prepared to face anger, reluctance to disclose or repeat certain details, and don't get annoyed yourself. Anger is usually directed not at you, but at the situation. It is important to create an environment in which refugees can fully express their negative emotions rather than suppress them, this will help cope with anger. Express your thoughts calmly and demonstrate that you understand the other person's feelings.
  10. If you understand that it is difficult for a person to talk about some traumatic events, do not force him/her to talk. Discussion can open up wounds or fears. Keep in mind that even well-intentioned questioning can be perceived as biased questioning, especially by those who have experienced trauma. Sometimes it is enough to say that you are nearby, and you can be contacted, rather than insisting on communication.
  11. Of course, to understand how a person feels, try to imagine yourself in his/her place.

Photo: Etienne Boulanger

How to establish communication

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees compiled Recommendations for behavior when communicating with refugees.

  • do not avoid eye contact, but do not look too closely;
  • facial expressions and tone of voice should convey warmth and caring;
  • do not nod or smile too actively - keep it in moderation;
  • Gesture also moderately, avoid closed poses - crossed arms and legs, clenched hands;
  • are physically on the same level;
  • lean forward slightly, showing attentiveness but relaxation;
  • the tone of voice should change; voice pitch and speech speed are average;
  • avoid long pauses, nervous laughter and constant coughing;
  • the distance between the interlocutors is half a meter.

What you should and shouldn't talk about

When emotional tension is high, the likelihood of disturbing a person with a question or simply a phrase said inappropriately is high. You need to choose your words carefully and be sensitive.

We say:

  1. Express empathy and note the efforts made by the victim to get out of a difficult situation on their own.
  2. You can say: “Everything is fine with you, these events that are happening in your life are not normal.”
  3. Sometimes care is better than any words - to give a person the opportunity to remain silent and feel that he is accepted by anyone, in any condition.
  4. First of all, determine for yourself what you are ready to hear. Don't start topics that might hurt you. Be kind to yourself, then it will become clearer how to be gentle to others. 
  5. It is often more important to listen than to talk. If you are ready, give the person the opportunity to speak. And whether she/he decides to do it or not is up to her/himself.
  6. Go for walks and socialize there. It is important for the victim to move, feel his body and change the environment around him.
  7. Find with your interlocutor his inner strength, what helped him cope with difficulties in the past and is helping him now. For one it is faith and prayer, for another it is meditation, and for a third it is physical labor, etc.

We don't say:

  1. Study information about the event that led to the forced relocation of Artsakh people. Identify topics that for some reason may seem controversial to you or cause a strong emotional response in the victim. For example, historical events, political situation, etc. Such issues should not be touched upon or discussed.
  2. Remain impartial, do not judge the person and do not use phrases like: “You should have done it this way.”
  3. Don't talk about your own difficulties: this is not what a person wants to hear now, and it is unlikely that your experiences will be comparable.
  4. The words “get yourself together”, “smile”, “be more joyful”, etc. do not help, but only irritate. If a person had the strength to do it, he/she would do so.
  5. Psychologists working in emergency situations do not advise assuring: “Everything will be fine.” This is perceived not simply as encouragement, but as a promise that imposes responsibility on the speaker.

Photo: Priscilla Du Preez

How to understand that you need the help of a psychologist

  1. People who experience traumatic episodes forget the exact dates and details of events. Some may not be able to talk about what happened.
  2. Easily recognizable physical reactions to stress: fatigue, nervousness and avoidance of eye contact, difficulty sleeping. If they persist for a long time, then you should talk to a psychologist.
  3. The help of a specialist is required if the mental state does not allow a person to independently take care of himself or his loved ones, or perform everyday tasks.
  4. A sign of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is referred to a psychiatrist or psychotherapist, is an abrupt interruption of a conversation. The victim becomes silent, entering a dissociative state to avoid the memories.
  5. It's difficult to judge for yourself whether a person is depressed, but there are some red flags. Among them: slow movements and restlessness, insomnia or drowsiness, loss of energy, guilt, low self-esteem, suicidal thoughts, emotional distraction.
  6. Because of the events experienced, a person can be not only angry, but also aggressive. If he/she poses a danger to himself or others, it is necessary to consult a specialist.
  7. Mental problems can be hidden behind psychosomatics, for example, a headache, a feeling of a lump in the throat. If the problem cannot be resolved with a therapist, a psychologist will probably help.

If you notice warning signs in the victim, gently express concern about changes in behavior and offer to discuss them, find out how the person feels. Be careful when discussing the topic of working with a psychologist; do not insist.

Fund specialists provide free psychological assistance to internally displaced people from Artsakh Frontline Therapists. They conduct individual and group sessions, meditation, art therapy; psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers work. Psychological support hotline: +374 43 842084.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs also opened hotline for psychological consultation: +374 10 552495.

You can get to free reception of a specialist from Yerevan State Universityby making an appointment by phone: +374 77 105259 or +374 94 093409.

Photo: SHVETS production

How to offer help

  1. First, understand whether you can definitely provide assistance or assist in obtaining it. Offer to help only if you are confident in the result, otherwise inflated and unjustified expectations can only aggravate the refugee’s already unstable condition. Instead of promises, it is better to say that you will do everything in your power, and list the existing obstacles and limitations.
  2. When offering your help and care, be sincere. Remember that you are not obligated to help, it is only your inner urge.
  3. It is better to give information rather than advice, especially if it was not asked for.
  4. The refugee may feel uncomfortable accepting your help, so let him know that you are doing your best.

Communication is an important element of socialization, as well as processing of trauma. It may be necessary to speak up, so provide verbal support, but be careful and courteous.

Psychologist-traumatherapist Alla Tsyplyonkova helped us in writing the article. Another Move2Armenia material created with the support of Alla: “What to do if you are overwhelmed by anxiety: advice from psychologists”.

Information sources:

  1. Klara Yagodinskaya, Features of assistance to refugees in the stories of psychologists. URL: https://nuzhnapomosh.ru/media/post/osobennosti-pomoshhi-bezhencam-v-rasskazah-psihologov/.
  2. Larisa Ionova, Psychologist of the Ministry of Emergency Situations: What phrase should not be said to refugees. URL: https://rg.ru/2022/05/03/reg-ufo/psiholog-mchs-kakuiu-frazu-nelzia-govorit-bezhencam.html.
  3. MHFA Ersthelfer. Richtlinien zum Umgang mit Depressionen. URL: https://www.mhfa-ersthelfer.de/media/filer_public/47/59/47593346-af89-4197-ba69-b617c86a5599/mhfa_umgang_mit_depressionen_russisch.pdf.
  4. Physiopedia contributors. Effective Communication for Displaced Persons. URL: https://www.physio-pedia.com/Effective_Communication_for_Displaced_Persons.
  5. UNHCR The UN Refugee Agency, Effective and Respectful Communication in Forced Displacement. URL: https://www.refworld.org/pdfid/573d5cef4.pdf.
  6. WHO; War Trauma Foundation; World Vision International, Psychological First Aid: A Guide for Field Workers. URL: http://www.who.int/mental_health/publications/guide_field_workers/en/.
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I can’t find the words... How to communicate with internally displaced persons so as not to cause harm
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