On the roof

In a recent Twitter exchange I was directed to Dr Stacey Freedenthal blogpost discussing two articles (here is the link), the links to the articles are in the text. First, it is an article asking ‘What would you say to a person on the roof?’; second, favoured more by the blogger, an article on how you would listen to the person on the roof. I want to comment on the articles and the blogpost.

I find the texts extraordinary. For me, the situation in which a person is on the roof (treating as a metonymy for other dramatic situations such as having a noose on one’s neck), about to jump, is one of high drama and tension, liable to change in an eyeblink, yet the discussions offered by the articles and the blog seem to be completely oblivious to it.

And so, the article on how you would talk to the person on the roof offers long soliloquies of the rescuer. They include metaphor-stories, hypothetical questions, parables….I don’t want to be flippant here, but I think the person ‘on the roof’ might give up be the attempt for the sole purpose of not being subjected to the boredom of listening to the stuff.

The other article focuses on listening rather than talking. But what would you be listening to, you might ask. Well, the author provides with useful ideas. You could ask questions such as:

  • How did things get so hopeless?
  • What brought you to hit the bottom of the barrel?
  • How did you lose the flavour of life?
  • What pain are you fleeing from now?
  • What is your unbearable pain?

As I was reading the questions, I immediately thought that the article author (and the blogger) must have a way to provide comfortable seating, as the questions suggest that the interlocutors will spend some time on the damned roof.

But there is something more profound here, which always gets me irritates me. In suicidology and psychology, questions are always presented as if they just push buttons. You ask the question and, hey, presto, the answer is forthcoming. Alas, communication doesn’t work like that.

Regardless of the quality of the questions (I’ll come back to that), even on the roof, questions have contexts and there are things which cannot be told to anyone, let alone a stranger who asks questions so pompous one wants to scream. Do you not think that you need some trust, an relationship, an alliance in order to ask such (potentially) profound questions? Oh, the psychologist asks, the minions respond. The psychologist doesn’t want to understand that I might not like the way they look, speak, walk and just for that I might tell them to go to hell? The don’t understand that standing on the precipice, a second away from my death, is not exactly the moment to launch my grand narratives?

Your wonder-questions don’t really do it for me and they really will not open me like a book, so you could read me and save me.

And when Dr Freedenthal, the blogger, writes:

It makes sense, and it sounds deceptively simple: Listen. Ask questions that invite the person to say more. Hear the person’s story. Listen so well that when you repeat back to the person your understanding of why they want to die, they say something along the lines of, “Yes, yes, that’s it.”

I just want to hear some dramatic Hollywood music in the background. Yes, so, I could despair even more. This so frequent an assumption that when a clinician asks their questions, everything will be hunky dory, they will succeed. All because they repeated understanding….Bloody hell…

Life’s really so simple, innit? Question – success; question – success. The golden touch of a psychologist.

As for the questions….Who speaks like that?! Does anyone really use the phrase ‘unbearable pain’ when asking an ordinary person? And just because Antoon Leenaars used it (following Edwin Shneidman) doesn’t mean that you must or should. And what’s with the assumptions? Are you sure that the person is feeling unbearable pain? Are you sure they are fleeing from pain? Are you sure they have lost the ‘flavour of life’, are you sure they have had it before? These questions say a lot about suicidology/psychology, but I really don’t think they are such great questions to ask someone about to jump to their death.

Incidentally, what if the answer is ‘I don’t know’ and that was the final straw? Has anyone thought about that?

And, as ever, all those questions in the articles quoted, and in a myriad others with communication advice (the perennial nonsense of open questions), are based on hypothetical talk. The advisors keep ignoring what actually happens in real life, only inventing more and more examples they THINK should be used.

Now, this would normally be the end of the post. Today, however, I want to write more. This is because there is an empirical foundation through which this post can be seen. In a recent article on Overcoming Suicidal Persons’ Resistance (link here), Skiveland, Feldman and Stokoe look at what actually does happen when someone is talking to a person ‘on the roof’. And you know what, no one asks questions about the ‘unbearable pain’. And, argue the authors, in contrast to current advice, challenges providing ‘irrefutable reasoning’ simply work.

But there is more, in her recent book, ‘Talk’, Stokoe says that evidence suggests that asking to ‘speak’ to the person on the roof, and not to ‘talk’ to them works better (no, it doesn’t mean it will always work and if you say ‘talk’ you will always ruin it forever, see below). They’re done talking, says Stokoe. And indeed, speaking constructs a different kind of communicative encounter, one in which the person on the top listens…But hey, we want to listen to them. Period!

And here’s the end. If you’re on psychological/psychiatric Twitter, like I am, you will get a daily portion of advice how to speak. Such advice is always all-or-nothing. You must not say this, you must say this. If you say this, very bad things will happen, if you say this, only goodness will follow. New advice keeps coming,  language police are scouring the internet for more and more infringements, ready to admonish.

Such advice is nonsense. Communicating, interaction, don’t follow such strict 0-1 rules. Contexts are complex, what works for a lot a people might not work for another person. There’s also your smile, the quality of your voice, the way you move, just because this is how you do it. There is also something ineffable in human interactions and some people are liked more than others. You are never guaranteed success, you are never sure to fail.

What does help a little, however, is understanding how communication, interaction, language/discourse work. And perhaps, just perhaps, those who keep offering communication advice could spend a day or two learning about it.



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