The latest statistics show that in 2021, in England, 5,219 people died by suicide. That’s a rate of 10.5 people per 100,000. But suicide isn’t inevitable, and most suicides are preventable.
Suicide Prevention Day 2023 is marked on 10th September. This year’s theme is ‘creating hope through action’.
To find out more about how we can all create that hope, we caught up with one of our Elevate experts, Rose Rowkins, founder of Start the Conversation. “I am on a mission to help people overcome their deep-rooted fears and find the words to talk about suicide, because I believe, I know, that talking can save lives.”
Here are Rose’s tips for listening that might save a life.
Remember that sympathy is not the same as empathy
There’s a big difference between sympathy and empathy.
When you’re able to feel with someone, you’re sitting with them in their pain. This is empathy. The person sharing their concerns with you feels heard and supported. On the flipside, sympathy can feel like your concerns are being belittled and minimised.
The next step is compassion. This incorporates that same feeling of empathy and adds deep concern and a desire to support your team member to find a way through their challenges.
Compassionate listening is the very best support you can offer to someone you care about.
Keep your own boundaries
As a manager, you’re given a level of responsibility for the people within your team. But that doesn’t mean that you have no boundaries between what’s yours and what’s theirs.
Importantly, that doesn’t stop you caring. But it does mean that, while you care about the other person as a whole person and you want to support them, you must also care enough about yourself to state your boundaries.
You can help yourself by asking:
- What can I do to help this person?
- What is outside of my control?
- If this conversation is really hard, what will I need to support myself?
- What experiences have I had in the past that might make it harder for me to listen with compassion?
- How can I show up as the manager I want to be, while caring for my own mental wellbeing?
Remember that you have a responsibility to listen, to signpost and to support. But another person’s emotional state or choices are neither your responsibility nor within your control.
The three most important parts of listening
Listen, don’t fix
Resisting the urge to fix is hard for all of us. But it’s especially hard when you’re a manager tasked with the professional wellbeing of your team.
Many of us naturally get pulled into the role of rescuer, but resisting that temptation will actually help support those around you much more effectively.
By fixing other people’s problems, you:
- Make yourself overly responsible for them
- Are finding solutions that work for you but maybe not for them
- Imply that the other person is incapable of tackling their own challenges
It’s disempowering to have someone else swoop in and try to fix things, even though your intention is to help. And that’s true for colleagues, friends, siblings, and even children, whether they’re teenagers or very young.
You have so little information about what someone is going through – definitely not enough to suggest a solution. So your responsibility is to stand alongside someone, with compassion, as they work it out for themselves. It will be uncomfortable. And it will empower them to find their own solutions as you support them.
Beware of bombarding with questions
It’s likely you already ask open questions rather than closed ones. But even open questions can feel like an assault when someone is in distress.
Some of the open questions you could ask might pry into territory your colleague isn’t ready to discuss yet.
Instead, try TED questions:
- T: tell me more
- E: explain that to me
- D: describe that for me
Any questions you ask should gently prompt the conversation to continue, show you care and give the other person no doubt that you offer a compassionate listening ear.
Be aware of distractions
Things like your phone pinging alerts, someone popping their head round the door, being in a busy environment – you’re aware that none of those are good for open conversations.
However, what about the distractions in your own head? Such as:
- “Uh oh, this conversation is really hard! I’m not sure I’m comfortable with this!”
- “This chat really needs to finish in the next 15 minutes – my kid has that appointment after school.”
- “It makes me feel so bad that this person feels like this.”
- “I can’t be the person to listen to this! I have enough of my own stuff going on.”
When thoughts such as those come up, it makes compassionate listening very difficult.
However, you can quieten the noise in your head, just for a little while. It can be useful to experiment with mentally ‘leaving’ your own thoughts and concerns at the door when you walk into a conversation. You know those things are there to collect afterwards – the day-to-day stresses about mystery illnesses, money, your children, disagreements, friendships. But you can park them and allow your colleague’s important conversation the space it needs for this short period of time.
Rose’s top tips for compassionate listening:
- Quiet your own head. ‘Park’ your own mental load at the door as you enter the conversation.
- Remember that, whatever they share, it is not your problem to solve.
- Your role is to communicate that you hear their concerns. Use TED questions to keep the conversation flowing. But your focus is listening with compassion.
- Then take action by asking, “what should we do about it?” You are not the answer, but you are part of the answer.
- Take care of yourself by seeking support for your own mental wellbeing needs.
If you, or someone you know, are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the Samaritans: 116 123. In an emergency, call 999.
If you’d like other resources, head over to Start the Conversation.
Whatever you are going through, you’re not alone.
To find out more about the listening and suicide prevention awareness training we offer, get in touch.