The older chap on the train was wearing a straw Akubra and reading a book. Because I'm also an older chap who likes hats and novels, we got to talking. As we did, he noticed that everyone else in the Sydney train carriage was staring at their phone or some other screen. "WMD -- weapons of mass distraction," he quipped to me (who regretfully would also usually be staring at my phone too).
It's not only about having less time to listen, but also less inclination to do so.
Indeed, any simple time-and-motion study in our homes, workplaces, shopping malls or transport hubs will show that the more time we spend with devices in the digital realm, the less time there is to spend with people in the human realm. At the same time, it's probable that constant online violence dulls us to real pain. How many of us watched with strange fascination the murder of the Russian Ambassador in Turkey without fully considering the tragedy for his grieving wife? Contact and content are exponentially increasing, but quality communication could well be waning. With that, there is the real risk that we lose our practice in listening.
And, it's not only about having less time to listen, but also less inclination to do so. As we read of a new American President, "post-truth" and "fake news", Aleppo, and constant acts of random and horrific terrorism, our world is often an indecipherable and frightening place. Our instinct for self-protection can make us wary. As our "flight" mechanism kicks in, it seems easier to avoid threats by turning off our ears and our minds to any views but our own safe ones. Life in our self-designed bubbles may seem safer, but it is most likely murdering the mutuality that has always sustained us a species.
Equally, as modern Australia becomes more polarised by "postcode-based prosperity" and growing divides between our inner suburb, outer suburbs and country Australia, some of us who are well-off may have less reason to express and act from empathy for those who are less well-off. Think about the last time you directly witnessed disadvantage in Australia and how it made you feel. For example, much of our current national suicide emergency -- with 3027 deaths in 2015 representing a 10-year high and eight Australians dying every day -- is "hidden" in indigenous and rural communities and among disengaged middle-aged men.
Yet, we somehow know there's something troubling going on. A recent exploratory survey conducted online (of course) by Lifeline indicatively showed that 80 percent of Australians believe we are growing lonelier as a society; some two thirds agree that social media is either contributing to that loneliness or they are uncertain if it is.
And, on the positive side, we continually read in self-help books with snappy titles and the Sunday newspaper magazines of the importance of listening and of having someone to talk to if we are having issues. I agree.
Listening is not enough to mitigate the malady of modernity and the suicide tragedy taking place in one of the richest and best educated societies that's ever existed.
However, as the representative of the organisation that listens to nearly 1 million contacts per year from some 250,000 Australians in some form of crisis, I suggest that listening is not enough to mitigate the malady of modernity and the suicide tragedy taking place in one of the richest and best educated societies that's ever existed.
In a 21 century society where listening is discouraged by both addictive technology and by conceptual risk, if we want to make a difference with our listening, such as helping people with their emotional wellbeing or saving their life, we now need to overcompensate and do what I have called in the media "listening with intent".
The truth is your digital device can listen. In fact, it can more accurately than your brain record what someone is saying. Yet, its impact from so doing is zero. "Listening with intent" is what humans uniquely do and what humans uniquely do is what helps other humans get through.
"Listening with intent" is both a commitment and a set of skills. First, it is a choice to put the wellbeing of another person before your own values and self-interest. In a context lacking in connection and compassion and oversupplied by hedonism and hyperactivity, Lifeline every day on 2500 calls finds that this simple act -- you before me -- is significantly empowering for people in crisis. It's effective because it cuts through what has sadly become the all-too-common expectation of not being heard and not being cared for.
Secondly, when we choose to "listen with intent", we also consciously choose to turn off the considerable noise in own busy brains which are constantly wired to emails and "to do" lists. Our only task becomes looking after a fellow human through unconditional positive regard (aka, love) -- in pain, right here, right now. Every day, we do some 100 "safe plans" with people who calls us where they commit to life-saving steps; these agreements are only possible by the committed listener having clarity and concentration for the needs of a person in crisis who is often confused and overwhelmed.
Empathy is more than a nice intention; it's a practice. To that end, "listening with intent" requires skills that are increasingly less common (as Lifeline sometimes sees when it trains people through 184 intensive hours to be accredited Crisis Supporters). These skills include:
Finding rapport and connection with the person in crisis.
Almost everything that has been shown to work in emotional support and behavioural change is built on trust. Often, we need to find the right activity or setting where the person feels at ease to build that trust. For example, some teenagers will only talk in the car on the way to Saturday sport; some won't at all. It's about finding a comfort zone for confidences.
Hearing the person in crisis without judgement and without giving advice.
We have to get away from the Facebook status update phenomenon of telling a person with a broken leg that "I remember when that happened to my cousin" or "you need to put your foot up" -- thereby minimising their own experience and pain. If they didn't ask for advice, don't give it; if they did, ask yourself whether you're the best person to give it.
Staying with what's personally painful and unpleasant.
Giving help often involves taking a risk. For example, the risk that you will hear things that hurt or are really uncomfortable and challenging. But experience shows that for people in crisis, it's vital for recovery for them to be able to relieve their own pain by describing it and delving into it before clearing it. The sacrifice we make is to take those steps with them. At Lifeline, it means we directly practice and recommend asking the following question of those who appear to be at risk: "Are you suicidal?" Most people want to be asked; it's often our own fears that stop the help-giving.
Accepting that those who are hardest to love probably need it the most.
It's easy to empathise with the cute kids, and easier still with the cute puppies and kittens. It's harder to empathise with a middle-aged bloke struggling with addiction and perhaps having had problems with the law or family violence. Yet, when it comes to suicide and when it comes to non-discriminatory decency, those are the types of people who most need our care to carry on.
Turning off our "cognitive biases".
All of us are subject to a range of mental predispositions -- from stereotyping to wishful thinking to group thinking to self-fulfilling thought. If we are not careful and showing consciousness, these predispositions will most likely take mental short-cuts and decode messages in certain ways. Listening with intent means trying harder to not hear what we want, but what someone else is really saying.
The "millennials' philosopher", Simon Sinek, has recently talked about how we increasingly use our digital devices for dopamine supply, or how our brain gets a hit with every status, 'like' or retweet, just as it might from drugs or alcohol or sex. In turn, our dependency and isolation can increase -- and disconnection of many dimensions is at the heart of suicidality.
We can choose to use technology rather than it using us and we can choose to love, respect and help others by listening to them not only with our ears but our essence.
While technology, social acceleration and contemporary complexity may be inevitable, our response doesn't need to be. We can choose to use technology rather than it using us and we can choose to love, respect and help others by listening to them not only with our ears but our essence.
We can choose to abide the wisdom and alternative knowledge of those of lived experience, those who are suicide bereaved, and those cultures such as Indigenous culture that listens in other ways than our own.
We can choose to open up the discussion about suicide to our own workplaces, sports clubs, religious communities and Parents & Citizens Associations -- and not only the workplaces of mental health and medical professionals.
Finally, we should choose to have a national suicide prevention plan -- like 28 other countries have -- that harnesses the best of technology, research, and clinical knowledge, but has a compassionate core of really empathising for people in crisis and hearing and supporting them rather than treating them as subjects.