What to say to save a life

Convincing someone not to jump is a job for only the most skilled negotiators. Emily Jupp finds out how they do it

"Let's keep going." "What do you mean?" "Go!" "You sure?" "Yeah... yeah." The final, unmemorable lines from Thelma and Louise hardly capture the atmosphere of desperation as they take their own lives by driving off a cliff. Suicide in film is often glamorised and always tragic, but often unconvincing. But can films ever capture the reality of wanting to take your own life?

In a new film, The Ledge, the character of Detective Hollis Lucetti (played by Terrence Howard) tries every cliché in the book to stop atheist Gavin Nichols (Charlie Hunnam) from committing suicide to save Shana (Liv Tyler), the girl he loves. Lucetti shouts at Nichols, shares secrets from his own life and walks away from the ledge to liaise with his colleagues. Sounds unrealistic? Tony Hodges (not his real name), a real-life crisis negotiator, says the stuff we see in the movie is more true-to-life than you might expect.

 

"You don't have to do this."

"The way the negotiator [Lucetti] challenged Nichols – that's something I've done. I've really shouted at people to take their attention out of 'I'm going to jump' and back on me." Hodges is a member of Greater Manchester Police and currently manages its Hostage Crisis Negotiation Unit. He has been an officer for more than 20 years, but only began crisis negotiation work six years ago. "I joined the police force to save lives and I hadn't felt that I'd done that completely, until this," he says.

 

"I'm here to listen to you"

"You don't know what you'll be faced with when you get the call at 3 am. You get dressed and rehearse your opening lines. I will say something like: 'Hi. My name is... I work for the police and I'm here to listen to you.'

"A lot of people would say: 'I'm here to help you', but I wouldn't. When someone is bereaved, or their wife's left them, or they've lost their job and they can't see another way out, suggesting you can help them just doesn't work."

The reasons for wanting to take your own life can be radically different, but Dr Carol Ireland, forensic psychologist at the University of Central Lancashire, whose new book Conflict and Crisis Communication: Principles and Practice (Routledge) is published this week, has found a common theme: "One thing that comes out is loss of control or lack of autonomy in their life and feeling overwhelmed."

"People get very narrow-minded," Hodges agrees. "You hear people say it's the coward's way out. It's so not. To stand out in the howling rain and wind in the pitch black with just a ledge between you and the ground... it's an extremely brave thing to do, but it's truly tragic. We try to help them see a way out. You've heard the expression 'the elephant in the room', right? Well, you can't get the elephant out the room in one go. You need to break it and take it out piece-by-piece."

 

"You're not up here by choice, are you?"

No matter how different the case, the objective is the same. "Our ultimate goal is to influence a change of behaviour. We use active listening to build rapport," says Hodges. Ireland expands: "You'll summarise the key points and say: 'Tell me a bit more about this', or 'It strikes me that you feel extremely frustrated, have I got that right?'

"One of the golden rules is you don't interrupt them. They need to feel you're really listening."

Next you use "minimal encouragers", or phatic expressions – meaningless conversational noises like mmms, ahs and grunts. "You're encouraging them to speak," explains Hodges. But sometimes people don't speak; not for hours.

"I negotiated with a young girl standing over the Manchester viaduct who wanted to kill herself. She didn't want to engage. I talked about music, fashion, everything... then when we started to talk about family she looked up.

"That's called a hook. There was an inkling she was there because of something to do with her family, so you gently use that subject to encourage them to speak."

 

"You got you a girlfriend?"

The detective asks Nichols if he has anyone close to him. It's important to remind people of their loved ones, says Hodges. "They forget how important they are. The men can feel they've let their family down; that they're no longer useful, but their children will always look up to them. I try to make them think about special moments in their children's lives – 'What about the school sports day? What about when your kids get married and you're not there?' I try to make them see that it's not fair to take the decision that their children will be better off without them.

"I've said to people: 'Just take a day to think about your wife or kids and if you don't change your mind you can come back and kill yourself tomorrow.'

"It sounds hard and obviously I'm hoping they won't come back, but like the guy in the film, it's about getting them to come down and calm down."

 

"Tell Shana I love her"

"It's always about a girl," says Hodges, half joking. "A colleague of mine had to deal with an eight-year-old boy with ADHD on the roof of a supermarket, threatening to jump and that was because of a girl." But it's not always because they've been hurt by the girl.

"I negotiated with a guy who had cancer previously but got better, then he developed cancer again and discovered he would die of it. He was a very professional, clever guy. He loved his wife 110 per cent. He felt he couldn't put her through the agony of seeing him go through it all again. It was absolutely tragic. He'd written letters, his affairs were in order and he was doing this to save making other people suffer. You wonder, is it right for me to interfere? I said maybe if you talk to [your wife] and if she agrees then you can come back here and try again... but you owe her that opportunity. I'm not sure if I feel right about it, but hopefully I gave him an opportunity. Constantly we see medical cures and breakthroughs. Who's to say he won't be cured?"One study by the University of California on suicide survivors from the Golden Gate Bridge says they felt reborn. Only one out of six made further attempts.

"I try to convince people that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem," explains Hodges. "Listening to people who have lost someone to suicide... it's just horrific for the loved ones.

"There's a lot of guilt, a lifetime of unanswered questions."

 

"I feel like I've got to know you"

It's an intense situation that lasts for hours, so it's inevitable that the negotiator and the person they're trying to help will get to know each other. "One of the things we talk about is personal disclosure," says Hodges. "I tell people quite a lot about myself because I'm expecting them to tell me the most intimate parts of their life. The guy in The Ledge genuinely felt sorry for the negotiator when he shared his story and I think if that will help him to compare his life to yours, then tell him. We never lie. It's about building trust."

One case reminded Hodges of someone in his own family. "One girl was 16 and she couldn't get past her problems. It doesn't matter what it was about, but I really believed she would jump. Eventually we persuaded her to come down. It's very intense.

"You get somebody's life concentrated into a couple of hours, in immense detail. Of course you feel sympathetic; you'd be inhuman if you didn't, but I'd like to think I'd never commit suicide because I believe what I say. There are always people there who love you enough to help you get through something. The biggest feeling of support is when they come off that ledge, you cling to them and they embrace you. That person might visit a psychologist once a week for years, but when they are standing on the edge they are like they've never been before, hanging on with a few fingers, the only person between them and ending their life is you. There isn't really another job like that."

'The Ledge' is out now on Blu-ray and DVD

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