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Suicide: Part 3

June 17, 2022  By Peter Collins


Photo credit: Peter Collins

In part one of this column, suicide was defined as a conscious act of self-induced annihilation in an individual who sees it as the best possible solution to a distinct problem. In part two, the Behavioural Change Stairway Model was introduced and discussed. What anchors the staircase, and is its foundation, is active listening. Active listening is important when communicating with anyone who is in crisis.

This final column on suicide will address the other steps in the Behavioural Change Stairway Model: empathy, rapport, influence leading to behavioural change.

Empathy

Empathy is a by-product of active listening. It is the ability to emotionally understand what the other person feels and see things from their point of view. Essentially, it is putting yourself in someone else’s position and feeling what they must be feeling. Empathy is not the same as sympathy or “feeling sorry” for the individual. Sympathy involves understanding from your own perspective, whereas empathy involves putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and understanding why they may have these particular feelings. It allows the officer to understand and then be understood by the person in crisis, and assists in establishing a rapport.

The tone of the communicator is crucial in empathy. Many would believe that most of the communication is conducted through the spoken word. Approximately 90 per cent of communication is actually transmitted through tone and tempo, as well as body language. Tone will show attitude and genuineness through inflection.

Rapport

Once empathy has been established, rapport can be developed. Rapport is a connection or relationship with someone else. It is a state of harmonious understanding with another individual.

Building a rapport will allow subject to be able to listen to what the officer has to say, with the goal of being able to influence change.

Influence

Influence is the act of producing an effect without authority. Influencing a person is having the capacity to have an effect on someone’s behaviour. The relationship that has been developed through active listening, empathy building and establishing a rapport sets the stage to be able to influence the subject. This allows the negotiator to make suggestions and work with the subject to develop alternatives and effect a behavioural change.

Behavioural change

Behavioural change will occur if the negotiator progresses up the staircase and does not miss or skip any steps. Sometimes the negotiator will have to “step back” or hold on to the rail of the staircase, but ultimately behavioural change sets the stage for problem solving.

In conclusion, the Behavioural Stairway is an essential component to communicating with the suicidal individual. It takes time and cannot be rushed. The communication should be relayed in a calm, confident tone. The officer should continue looking for common ground. If possible, the officer should seek small agreements—such as moving to a safer place, putting down the knife etc. Small agreements can lead a person into a “yes” state of mind.

Do not rush to “problem solve” – allow the process to unfold. Allow the person to vent, and remember to acknowledge their emotions and rephrase what is being said. In crisis negotiations, people are more apt to like us and comply, if they see us as:

  • Willing to listen
  • Worthy of respect
  • Understanding
  • Non-threatening

Remember, when communicating with anyone in crisis:

  • Listen, listen, listen to the subject;
  • Find a common ground for agreement;
  • Acknowledge their point of view;
  • Create a positive atmosphere for problem-solving;
  • Do not argue or debate with the subject;
  • Do not make promises you cannot keep;
  • Do not lie to the subject.

As a final point, humour should be used cautiously and only after a rapport has been established. Humour can easily be misinterpreted but when used appropriately, it can be a very powerful tool.

Help is available. If in distress, please go to your nearest emergency room. The Canada Suicide Prevention Service is also available 24/7/365, in English and French, at 1-833-456-4566.

References

  1. Ireland, C., Fisher, J., and Vecchi, G. Conflict and crisis communication: principles and practice. New York: Routledge. 2011.
  2. McMains, M., Mullins, W. and Young, A. Crisis negotiations: managing critical incidents and hostage situations in law enforcement and corrections (6th edition). New York: Routledge. 2020.
  3. St-Ives, M. and Collins, P. The psychology of crisis intervention for law enforcement officers. Toronto: Carswell Thompson Reuters. 2011.

Peter Collins is the operational forensic psychiatrist with the Ontario Provincial Police’s Criminal Behaviour Analysis Section. He is also a member of the crisis/hostage negotiation team of the Toronto Police Service Emergency Task Force. Dr. Collins’ opinions are his own. Contact him at peter.collins@utoronto.ca.


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