A lot of people denounce small talk as meaningless or insincere. However, in some cases, small talk can save lives.
This week, BBC Radio One’s Teen Hero, Harry, stopped someone from taking their own life. Harry was on his way to school when he passed someone who was ‘clearly in distress’. Harry soon realised that this person was moments away from attempting to take their own life, and so, with ‘great sensitivity’, checked in to see if they were okay.
By starting a simple conversation, Harry managed to break them out of their negative thought patterns. He kept them talking and persuaded them to reconsider their decision. With small talk, Harry saved a life.
We were so inspired and moved by Harry’s incredible bravery and courage. Harry’s story is a brilliant example of the way in which a conversation can transform someone’s mood. As the Samaritans campaign states: small talk saves lives.
Spotting someone in need
The past few years have been tough on everyone. The pandemic and its restrictions have made all of us feel lonely, isolated, and down at points. That’s why its all the more important to look out for one another throughout these challenging times.
People in need don’t all behave the same. However, there are a few things you can look out for:
• Isolated or standing alone
• Appearing distressed or withdrawn
• Not moving from their position for a long period of time
It can be hard to approach a stranger. But, if you think someone might need help, it’s important to trust your instincts.
That’s why we’ve come up with a few small talk questions and topics that you can use to strike up conversation with someone in need and aid their suicide prevention.
Talking to someone in need
Many conversations begin with simple introductions. By introducing yourself, you instantly create a connection with the person you are talking to. You are also encouraging the person you are talking with to ground themselves, by remembering their own name and introducing themselves in return.
Where and What
Asking what has brought a person to this location, or where they are going, can be another good ice breaker. Sheila, one of the Samaritan’s Small Talk Saves Lives success stories, said she ‘was on the way to (her) weekly shop’ last year, when she ‘came across a young woman in floods of tears.’ Sheila stopped her car and asked the woman, ‘has something happened to bring you here today?’ and could tell immediately that this basic question ‘instantly broke her thoughts.’
Straightforward questions like this can also have a grounding effect on a vulnerable person. It can encourage them to reconsider their surroundings and centre them within the moment.
Ask about Coffee
Asking someone a question such as ‘where can I get a coffee?’ is an easy and effective way of striking up, or continuing, a conversation. This kind of innocent question might help to snap someone out of a negative place, without placing too much pressure on them. You might also ask them for directions for something else, such as the bus station, or a local shop.
Comment on the Weather
Much like asking about coffee, making an observation about the weather is another way to ease into a conversation. People in the UK are always talking about the weather, so this should feel relatively natural for both yourself and the person in need. Talking about the weather also provides an opportunity to establish a rapport between the two of you.
Sometimes, simple words of reassurance can be enough to stop someone from taking their own life. In 2008, Jonny Benjamin was preparing to take his own life on London Bridge, when a stranger stopped to talk to him. The stranger – later revealed as Neil Laybourn – stopped, and told Jonny ‘it will get better mate, you will get better’. These few compassionate words from a stranger were enough to ‘burst the bubble of that world (he) was in.’
Continuing a Conversation
Once you have initiated contact with one of these small talk starters, encourage them to keep talking.
Try move the conversation somewhere safe and quiet, like a bench. By listening to what they have to say, and repeating it back to them, you can help to make them feel heard and understood.
Once they are safe, ask them if there is someone you can call for them – such as a family member, close friend, or a crisis line. If you feel it is necessary, you can also call the emergency services on 999.
If they are unresponsive or aggressive
If the person is unresponsive when you first try to talk to them, try not to be put off. Give them some time, before trying to talk to them again. Ensure you stay near them, within their eyeline, and be patient. Sometimes, when people are in emotional turmoil, they feel disconnected from the world around them, and it might take them some time to realise you are there.
If the person in need behaves aggressively to you, or is defensive, make sure you also keep your own safety and wellbeing in mind when interacting with them. You can either wait for them to calm down, and try talking to them again, or you can find someone to help you.
If you don’t feel safe approaching them, you should call emergency services.
Remember, there is no such thing as the wrong thing to say when talking to someone in need. No matter how you initiate a conversation with someone, you are doing the right thing in approaching them. Just do your best and trust your instincts.
In certain situations, you might call a crisis line on behalf of the person in need. These lines are free to use and available to anyone who might need them.
Call 116 123 (24hr)
Email [email protected]
Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM)
Call 0800 58 58 58 (5pm – 12am daily)
Visit the webchat page
0300 123 3393
Text 86463 (weekdays from 9am-6pm)
Papyrus (for people under 35)
Call 0800 068 41 41 (9am – 12am)
Text 07860 039967
Email [email protected]
Looking after yourself
You can make a huge difference to the life of someone in need by talking to them, but the experience may also take its toll on you. You might feel quite overwhelmed afterwards.
If you feel the need to talk to someone about what you have experienced, you can also call the Samaritans on 116 123.
If you are a foster carer with Compass, you’re never alone. You can reach out to your support team for further guidance. Get in touch to find out more about becoming a foster carer with Compass Fostering.