We all need hope - so let's create some

Eddy Canfor-Dumas


January 2021

I'm steadily approaching the thousand-hour mark as a crisis-line volunteer. It’s without doubt one of the best things I’ve done in my life and I’m surprised at how the milestone has crept up.

A thousand hours is a long time to spend on the phone talking to people – or, more accurately, listening to them, as I’d estimate the ratio of me listening to talking is roughly 10 to 1.

In that time I’ve learnt some key things about engaging with people in various degrees of distress, some of them suicidal. Here are three observations.

First, given the right – that is, the wrong – circumstances, even the strongest of people can think themselves into a very dark dead-end. And because at such times they are literally hopeless and can see no way out of their predicament, suicide can seem the only logical way to end their pain. And often, if you look at their world only through their eyes, their logic is irrefutable.

The magic of empathy

That said – and second – as listening volunteers we’re trained not to try to argue people out of their thinking patterns, nor to offer advice. Instead, we apply the ‘magic’ of empathy, which we show by engaging fully with the caller and striving to understand what they are going through, without judging them, however difficult or uncomfortable it might be for us to hear.

We focus on them completely, we encourage them to say whatever is on their mind, whatever is troubling them.

We patiently clarify what we’ve heard – and in so doing often help them to clarify their thoughts and feelings too.

And then – if we've shown that we’ve understood by offering an accurate summary of what we’ve heard – there often comes a pivotal moment when the caller says, ‘Yes, that’s exactly right’; or ‘You’ve hit the nail on the head’; or ‘I couldn’t have put it better myself.’

At which point a slender bond of trust has been formed and the conversation can take a new turn – maybe towards other possibilities, other options the caller might not have explored, or perhaps has dismissed but which now might be revisited in a different light.

And third, because the focus is always on empowering the caller – even to the point of acknowledging their right to end their life if that’s their determination – the combination of autonomy and the reframing with them of their situation can produce an almost miraculous event. The emergence of hope.

Not always, but more often than might be expected. I’ve even had callers in suicidal despair at the start of a conversation who, two hours later, were laughing with relief and resolving to keep going.

Winter always turns to spring

We are currently facing a dark and challenging time in the UK and around the world, as the covid pandemic surges again. The UK has gone into its third lockdown, infections are rising rapidly, the hospitals are almost full and the forecast is for things to get worse before they get better.

Even with the promise of the vaccine coming over the horizon it’s very easy to lose hope at a time like this. But I know from personal experience that it is possible to create hope by connecting with another person through empathy and understanding, and together reframing the situation so that even a glimmer of light can get in. In fact, it’s one of the greatest benefits of creative conversation.

So wherever we can, let’s try to do that. Let’s create hope for ourselves and others. Let’s endure this difficult period with hope – together – and look forward to the time when we can return to normality on the other side.

For as a Buddhist sage once said, ‘Winter always turns to spring.’

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