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How to talk like a Samaritan

What are the right and the wrong things to say to someone who is struggling to cope?

In Word of Mouth, Michael Rosen meets Mark Harris, a long-standing volunteer for the Samaritans who now trains other volunteers, and Darran Latham, a volunteer and former caller to the Samaritans himself.

They discuss the ways in which talking and listening can best be used to help people in crisis.

1. Small talk saves lives

Making small talk with a stranger might save their life. Walking up to someone who seems distant or distressed and asking “are you ok?” or “do you fancy a coffee?” can sometimes be all it takes to break the chain of suicidal ideation and move that person to seek help.

Don’t be worried about saying the wrong thing. Often, someone in crisis is looking for an intervention (whether consciously or subconsciously) and saying something, however small or seemingly silly, is better than walking on by.

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2. Ask open questions

Mark explains how asking open questions is an effective way to “explore what is going on for the person that you are speaking to.” By asking questions “you are eliciting a response from someone and you are straight away engaging with someone.”

But these questions shouldn’t be about determining the physicality of what’s happened in that person’s life, but how the person feels about it at that very moment in time.

3. Think about your tone of voice

It isn’t just what you say that matters, but how you say it.

In their initial training, volunteers with the Samaritans are encouraged to think about how loud and empathetic they sound. Mark explains that, “your voice has to come down. It has to be softer. It has to be warmer.”

4. Summarise what has been shared with you

If a caller doesn’t have friends or family around, or feels like the issue they have is too personal to share, they may not feel like they’re being listened to.

Mark explains how “summarising is brilliant at the end of a call” because outlining what the person has told you will make them feel like they’re actually being heard and that’s “a powerful thing to do.”

5. Give verbal cuddles

Another way to prove that you’re listening is to give short words of encouragement, which the Samaritans refer to in training as “verbal cuddles.”

6. Don’t try and fix the problem

It’s natural to want to help by giving practical advice and saying things like “I did this when a similar thing happened to me.” But instead, it’s more empowering to ask, “have you thought about this?” Or “how would you feel about doing this?”

There may be a very clear reason why they’re not already doing the thing that it feels natural to suggest.

7. Never ask why

At the Samaritans, Mark says, they never ask “why?” because it can often sound judgmental and accusatory: “Why did you do this?”

Instead, they try to explore the issue in a different way, using more neutral wording like, “what led up to this incident happening?”

8. Don’t try and put yourself in another person’s shoes

“Another big thing we try not to do is to put ourselves in that person’s position”, Darran says, because “we don’t know how that person’s feeling”.

Try to avoid saying, “I know how you feel” or “that must be terrible!”

We can’t know how it feels for that person and it’s unhelpful to impose our own views or emotional response.

What kind of language are Samaritans encouraged to use?

What kind of language are Samaritans encouraged to use?

Michael Rosen talks to the Samaritans about how language can help people in crisis.

9. Don’t be afraid of silence

Talking is obviously important but, Darran says, “a silence can be just as informative” and “sometimes its what’s not said which gives you the information when you’re on a call.” Silence is powerful because it gives people the space to speak.

But, Mark says, knowing when to keep quiet is not an easy skill to learn. Often a caller will lead with something and then stop and, although “every cell in your body wants to fill that silence”, you have to “sit there and not say anything – knowing that eventually the other person will start up again.”

10. Never show shock

When talking about difficult subjects that are really close to them, the last thing a person wants to hear is a sharp intake of breath or “that’s awful.”

Outlining what the person has told you will make them feel like they’re actually being heard

A lot of the time, Darran says, “we’re talking about serious trauma… and they’re scared of that – they’re scared about how people are going to react”, so it’s crucially important not to show shock.

11. Be dynamic

Because “you never know who’s on the other end of the phone”, Darran says, “we need to be fluid; we need to be dynamic.”

Remember that every person is different and, as such, you can’t be prescriptive with the type of language you use. Listen carefully to that person and think on your feet.

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