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Learning to Be a Good Listener Could Help Save Someone’s Life

Suicide prevention work taught me the true value of listening.
suicide prevention being a good listener empathy silence semicolon project suicide awareness mental health depression

Photo Credit: The Kitcheners

Each September, which is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, I think back to the two years when I spent every Tuesday night answering phones at a statewide crisis hotline.

My coworkers there had all considered suicide. A few had been bullied for being gay. A couple people had been in abusive relationships. One girl was kicked out of her parents’ house when, at 17 years old, she started dating a 40-year-old. I was young and came from a good family. The worst thing that had happened to me was that my first love cheated on me, but even I knew that it was a wound that would eventually heal. I was one of the only volunteers there who had never personally considered taking my life.

It was eye-opening, to say the least, to work alongside so many people who had thought so seriously about doing something that I considered unthinkable. These were not people who seemed particularly depressed or broken or crazy. They were good people—normal people—sitting next to me as we plowed through hours upon hours of training, sitting back-to-back as we took turns role-playing the caller and the operator. Without a clue as to what we’d hear on the other end of the line, we all just hoped we’d be able to help. The candid conversations I had with them were probably the most useful part of my training.

When I was freshly graduated from the extensive training program and answering live crisis calls for the first time, a more experienced operator would listen in. He or she was a safety net if I got in over my head and offered constructive criticism afterward. One of my early calls was from a kid who was having trouble with his parents and felt misunderstood and angry. As I responded to the caller per the training module—clarification, validation, empathy—I felt like I was doing a good job. I was thinking on my feet and responding to his concerns with questions and suggestions. While I was rattling off insightful remarks, though, my supervisor, who was listening in on the call, scribbled something on his notepad and slid it across the table to me.

“You don’t have to fill the silence,” it read.

As an extrovert and a natural communicator, talking comes more easily to me than silence. I had to force myself to heed that advice during the first few months of taking calls. Sometimes I would count to ten in my head after someone finished talking. Those ten seconds felt like an awkward eternity to me. More often than not, though, the caller would break the silence. There would be more information, more feelings, a new insight that they finally realized. The silence that felt so uncomfortable to me seemed to be exactly what a lot of people needed. Whereas I wanted to put a period at the end of their statement and move on to another thought, they needed a semicolon—a pause while they gathered their thoughts for a moment.

Turns out that this idea of the semicolon is a powerful one in the world of suicide prevention. There’s a movement called Project Semicolon, founded in 2013, that strives to help people struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts to declare that “our stories are not over yet.” Hundreds of people have gotten creative tattoos incorporating a semicolon into the design to serve as a visible reminder that where their story could have come to an end, they chose instead to simply pause and keep going.

The symbolism certainly isn’t lost on me. All these years later, I still hold on to that advice from my crisis hotline supervisor. I still remind myself, often, that I don’t have to fill the silence. Quiet recognition is effective not just when responding to a stranger in crisis but also—and perhaps, even more so—in our closest relationships. What my supervisor explained, and what I’ve come to personally understand in the years since that call, is that sometimes the best way to honor someone’s feelings is to resist the urge to advise, or put into perspective, or to even react at all.

Sometimes listening closely is actually the most respectful response. Sometimes we just need a pause.

If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts, know that we here at Verily think your story has value and that it’s not over yet. Even if it seems like it’s over, we beg you to think of this moment as a brief silence to honor what you’re going through. We encourage you to continue on. Never hesitate to give a call to the good folks at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline; they’re ready to listen.