What to do if someone you know threatens to harm themselves

For the last few years, French telecoms Orange has seen a pretty horrific thing happening to its workforce. Recent reports from the company show a high number of suicide related to work issues. Since the beginning of the year, 10 employees from different offices around the country took their own lives. Sadly, this is not the first time this happened to the company who also lost 35 employees between 2008-2009.

This makes me wonder: what should someone do when put in the difficult position of keeping someone from killing or harming themselves? Or at least having to stall them until professionals can take over. I assume there’s some kind of training for managers and the likes, but what about all the other employees?

I’ve had the chance to attend a somewhat informal presentation by two police officers from Hampshire Constabulary whose work often involve talking people out of harming themselves. They explained that listening, really listening, is a skill few people have, as, from infancy, we are no taught to listen, but to communicate well. Listening, in the deepest sense of the word, does not only involve hearing, but also understanding and assimilating what is being said.

Active Listening

Active Listening is what they call that skill and it can be explained with these key actions:

1. Summarize what the person just said to show you are paying attention and understand what they are saying.
2. Give minimal encouragers, such as “Go on”.
3. Emotionally label, such as “I can see why you’d feel that way”.
4. Echo what they say so they see you are paying attention.
5. Mirror their position/actions.
6. Use a listening position so they see you are open to what they are saying.

Using these instead of winging it can have a significant impact on whether someone harms themselves or not. Indeed, these actions are key to climbing what they called the Negotiation Staircase (see diagram), a series of key steps which ultimately can lead the person who follow them to help someone in crisis.

Negotiation Staircase

As you can see, the staircase relies on Emotional Intelligence, which is being able to distinguish who you are and what you feel from what the person in crisis is and feel. Basically, are you judgemental of other people? Can you attempt to see things from the person point of view without being influenced by your own beliefs and experiences?

Once you have Emotional Intelligence, the steps are supported by your Listening Skills, which is where Active Listening comes into play. Once you have these, you can start climbing the staircase. However, you cannot skip steps in this one, as each one is necessary to reach the next. If you want to Influence someone, you first need them to Trust you.

I’m curious, though. Have you ever been in this kind of situation? If so, what did you do? If not, what would you do?

6 thoughts to “What to do if someone you know threatens to harm themselves”

  1. While I have not been in a situation such as this before, I have known many people who have had emotionally stressful problems and the steps mentioned here are what I kept in mind when dealing with them.
    It should be noted that those conversations went very well, and it seemed like my friend (or even a stranger who was having a really terrible day) felt better after talking to someone who didn’t say something critical and who seemed genuinely concerned about their problems.

    On the other hand, I’ve also had my own fair share of difficulties, and I’ve found that when the person or people that I’m talking to only “listen” rather than actively listen, I get more and more frustrated, which in turns makes the situation worse.

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks for commenting, Soarin. I’m glad that these steps helped you. I do agree though, now that I know we’re not taught to listen when we’re children, the issue seems even more daunting.

  2. I think it’s really interesting the point you raised that from a young age we are not taught to listen but to communicate. I think that this is a larger problem than we realise. Although I have never been in that state of mind there have been times when I would just like people to listen but I, myself wasn’t sure how to just listen, so thank you. I will take away and work on the skill of active listening.

    1. Thanks for reading, Toni. I was as surprised as you when the two gentlemen explained it during the presentation. And now I do tend to agree with it: active listening is a difficult thing for anybody, as it involves a lot of concentration and emotional intelligence. Teaching it to children would open a world of opportunities for the society, as it might make us less self-centred and more open to the world and people around us. What do you think?

  3. I’m very lucky to be able to say that I have never been in this situation and I used to own my own company. I think life has definitely become more stressful in recent years with more pressure being put on the employees. In a recent study I read, the companies performance directly relates to employee sickness rates. I think that perhaps employers should take a preventative approach and provide a counselling service or even just arrange company social nights.

    1. Interesting idea! However, as far as the story goes, it seems that Orange is actually the reason as to why people are hurting themselves. It seems, therefore, doubtful that it would be willing to provide counselling services to the employees it mistreated.

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