On learning how to listen.

This originally appeared on The Pool (RIP). As it's sadly not available there any longer, and this week is Mental Health Awareness week, I thought I'd share it here.

I’ve always been the type of friend with a lot of opinions to share – whether it’s Brexit or your boss or why you should put the clotted cream on your scone first, I’ve got something to say about it. If an acquaintance comes to me with a problem, my first impulse is to tell them exactly what they should do to resolve it. If only they’d handle things exactly the way I would, I’m inclined to think.  

Wanting to help someone in distress by offering them solutions to their problems is understandable. Even more so if what a person is communicating is that they want to end their life. “But you have so much to live for,” you want to say, “life is so rich.” The hardest – and most counterintuitive – thing to do can be simply to listen.

When I began volunteering with a suicide-prevention charity a few years ago, I had to learn the importance of doing just that. I admit there may have been something of the hero complex that led me to sign up in the first place. “I give great advice,” I thought, “I’ll be brilliant at this!” So it was chastening, in training, to discover that – rather than trying to “convince” people not to end their life by suicide – my responsibility would, essentially, be to shut up and pay attention.

But in the phone room, the sense in this approach quickly became clear. Through long night shifts, as I necked black coffee and Haribo in a bid to stay alert, I spoke to all kinds of people. There were those who were leading very difficult lives – in extreme poverty and isolation, or enduring physical illness or pain; others had, what seemed, at a superficial level, to be a well-functioning existence, but were feeling overwhelmed by mental-health issues. I spoke to students, teachers, lawyers, prisoners, elderly people: suicidal thoughts don’t discriminate. My own life experience couldn’t have begun to equip me to offer these callers advice on how to stay alive. So I did what I could. I listened.

A friend once said “really listening is not not-doing-anything. It’s a big thing to do”. Sometimes we resist listening because it feels too passive, too small for the magnitude of what we’re being told. But actually there’s a lot involved in being a good listener: you have to ask open-ended questions that indicate that you really want to hear the answer; use your words not to tell someone what they ought to do, but to reflect what they’ve said so they know that they’ve been heard. You have to be unafraid of silences. You have to mean it when you ask: “How are you?”

There is no elixir to “save” someone who is having suicidal thoughts. The reasons that someone may decide to end their life are often far too complex to unpick. But I know that there were times when people began a call ready to end their lives, and by the end of the call, told me that they wouldn’t, not tonight, at least –  that was something. And I feel quite certain that, in the noisy world we live in, simply to listen was a gift that had a weight and value all of its own. There was a rare grace in letting them know that their story had been heard, that their voice was respected.

I stopped volunteering with the charity earlier this year. As much as it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, it was also one of the most challenging. It turned out it wasn’t just my friends that I hadn’t been listening to properly, but my own heart. I had been so certain when I walked into the call centre that I “had my shit together”, but as I learnt the particular care involved in holding a space where the most vulnerable feelings can be expressed, I realised the extent to which I had been suppressing some of my own emotions. The revelation that I wasn’t OK hit me with a force that astonished me. One night, at London Bridge Station, I felt like I couldn’t get on the train home. A friend came to meet me, took me to a café, and let me talk about what was going on. Over the weeks that followed, she let me keep talking.

I wasn’t suicidal. But the truth is that listening shouldn’t only begin when someone has reached that crisis point. It should be something we practice every day. It should be about the big things and about the little things too, the mundane crises of our normal lives.

I try to remember that. I hope that I’m a better friend because of it.

Learn more about volunteering for the Samaritans here.

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