AllVoices Reimagining Company Culture Episode 247: Enable Personal Agency and Proactively Prevent Burnout

Terri and I recently joined Christina Giordano of the AllVoices Reimagining Company Culture podcast to discuss burnout. We talk about how to systematically prevent burnout, research about the tangible benefits of happy and healthy teams, KPIs to evaluate a company’s culture, and more.

You can listen to the full podcast here:

Or you can watch us live on YouTube:

Book Review-The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles

Resilience is a common term these days.  Everyone wants to build resilience.  Everyone wants to know how to make people recover rather than crumble from challenges.  I picked up The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles, because I was looking for secrets that would have given Alex what he needed to be more resilient.  Life hit him with the loss of a former shipmate, and he couldn’t recover from it.  In the end, I didn’t find what I was looking for – but that doesn’t mean that you can’t.

Seven Skills

The summary of the seven skills the book teaches are:

  • LEARNING YOUR ABCs: When confronted with a problem or challenge, are you ever surprised by how you react or wish you could respond differently? Do you ever assume that you know the facts of a situation, only to find out later that you misinterpreted them?
  • AVOIDING THINKING TRAPS: When things go wrong, do you automatically blame yourself? Do you blame others? Do you jump to conclusions? Do you assume that you know what another person is thinking?
  • DETECTING ICEBERGS: Everyone has deeply held beliefs about how people and the world should operate and who they are and want to be. We call these iceberg beliefs because they often “float” beneath the surface of our consciousness so we’re not even aware of them.
  • CHALLENGING BELIEFS: A key component of resilience is problem solving. How effective are you at solving the problems that you encounter day to day? Do you waste time pursuing solutions that don’t work? Do you feel helpless to change situations? Do you persist on one problem-solving path even when you see that it’s not getting you where you want to be?
  • PUTTING IT IN PERSPECTIVE: Do you get caught in what-if thinking in which you turn every failure or problem into a catastrophe? Do you waste valuable time and energy worrying yourself into a state of paralyzing anxiety about events that have not even occurred?
  • CALMING AND FOCUSING: Do you feel overwhelmed by stress? Do your emotions sometimes come on so quickly and fiercely that you can’t seem to think straight? Do “off-task” thoughts make it hard for you to concentrate?
  • REAL-TIME RESILIENCE: Are there times when counterproductive thoughts make it hard for you to stay engaged and in the moment? Do certain negative thoughts tend to recur over and over again?

Personal, Permanent, and Pervasive

Three dimensions clearly indicate how well someone will respond to a situation.  Will they be resilient or are they likely to become hopeless?  The dimensions are:

  • Personal – Is this situation about me or not about me?
  • Permanent – Is this situation permanent or temporary?
  • Pervasive – Is this globally applicable or only in this situation?

The more that things are viewed as being not about me (not personal), temporary (not permanent), and situational (not pervasive), the more likely it is that someone will shrug off the situation and continue working.  The more that the opposite is true, the more likely it is that someone will get stuck.

Realistic Optimism

Optimism – as long as it’s grounded in reality – is a good thing.  Barbara Ehrenreich criticizes it in Bright-Sided for deliberately ignoring things and self-deception.  However, I argue that we all have a bit of self-deception happening – and it’s not all bad.  It’s when our optimism diverges too far from reality that it’s a problem.  After all, as The Hope Circuit explains, learned helplessness was re-understood, with the capabilities of an fMRI machine and a map of the brain, to be the failure to learn control – even if we rarely truly have control.  It turns out that depressed people more accurately assess their skills – but that isn’t a good thing.

As Viktor Frankl explains in Man’s Search for Meaning, some optimism that is unfounded can be more harmful when the beliefs about what will be happening fail to occur.  As a result, the real trick is to find ways to look at the glass as half-full without deluding yourself into the belief that it’s completely full.


Related to optimism is your beliefs about yourself.  Do you believe that you can get things done, or do you believe that you’re incapable of doing anything right?  Do you believe that you have skills, strength, and value, or do you believe that you’re weak, useless, and without value?  The greater degree to which you believe you have self-efficacy, the better you’ll be able to maintain hope and thereby be more resilient.  Rick Snyder in The Psychology of Hope explains that hope is a cognitive process built on waypower (knowing how) and willpower (the will to continue).  Self-efficacy is about maintaining the power to get things done.

Cognitions Don’t Cause Emotions

Despite what The Resilience Factor says, cognitions don’t cause emotions.  They’re related and they influence emotions, but they don’t cause them.  Lisa Feldman Barrett explains in How Emotions are Made that they’re guided by physical reactions and then are shaped by our experiences and expectations.  A better understanding of how emotions are formed is found in Emotion and Adaptation, where Richard Lazarus decomposes the process and helps us to understand the mechanisms that are in place.

Daniel Kahneman explains in Thinking, Fast and Slow that most of our cognitive is spent in a basic pattern matching system he calls System 1.  In this mode, we look for patterns in our environment and do the actions that we did last time – if they were successful.  In this pattern matching mode, it’s hard to say that there’s cognitions happening.

So, while we know that how we feel about something, especially our previous experiences, shape our emotions about it, previous negative experiences in similar situations will unfairly cloud our perception of current reality.

It’s All in the Interpretation

If we break things down, our emotions and our resilience is in how we interpret a situation.  While there are stressors in the environment, it’s our reaction to those stressors that matters.  If we interpret negative outcomes of the stressor as high probability and high impact and judge that our ability to cope is low, we’ll be stressed.  The greater degree to which we’re able to perceive the stressor’s impact as improbable, small, and within our ability to cope, the less likely we’ll feel stressed.

Stress has serious long-term negative consequences that are well explained in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.  Suffice to say, the more we can avoid chronic stress, the better off we’ll be.

So, while it may seem like self-delusion and self-deception, when we ground our assessments in reality and evaluate things from the perspective of truth rather than fear, we are more likely to make accurate assessments and less likely to be emotionally triggered.

Visions of the Future

One key aspect of perspective that is useful is a perspective about a positive future.  In The Time Paradox, Philip Zimbardo shares how we all see time differently from past negative and positive to present fatalistic and present hedonistic – and to a future focused view.  When we have a positive future view of time, we expect that things will get better in time.

I often share that time has a very long arc, and things that appear to be intractable today may someday be solved.  Problems that we believe are unchangeable are all washed away in the sands of time.  Even the well-built pyramids of Egypt are fading over time – and statues like the Sphinx are in serious need of a nose job.  Nothing is forever.

Guilt is Garbage

Guilt has an evolutionary benefit of helping us to change our beliefs and behaviors based on negative outcomes.  However, our negative bias can get us stuck in processing and reliving our guilt repeatedly.  This approach to guilt – constantly reliving it – is bad for us and for everyone.  Once we’ve apologized, learned from the event, and hopefully changed our behavior, we need to learn to let it go.

Guilt that is internalized too much moves from being that we’ve done something bad to shame, which is the assessment that we are bad.  Shame is a sticky substance that is hard to free our psyche from and one that serves no purpose.

Analyzing Anxiety

Most people don’t have a clear definition of anxiety, particularly in terms of how it relates to fear.  Fear is a specific concern about a specific possible occurrence.  Anxiety is a fear based in the idea that we can’t even tell where the threat will come from.  Anxiety is therefore more challenging to eliminate in our beliefs, because we’ve got very little to put our fingers on.

Anxiety at its core is the belief that we’ll encounter a stressor suddenly and that it will overwhelm our capacity to cope.  If we want to reduce anxiety, we need to focus on how we can authentically build a person’s sense of self-efficacy – or, said differently, their personal agency.

Many people with anxiety believe that they feel powerful and able to take on life’s challenges but generally there’s something buried deep inside that prevents them from fully believing in their value and ability to overcome.

Personal Agency, Self-Efficacy by Any Other Name

When speaking about people’s ability to get things done, I most frequently use “personal agency” rather than self-efficacy, because personal agency is inclusive of the availability of time and resources that go beyond someone’s sense of skills.  Personal agency is the heart of resilience.  The more personal agency you have, the more resilience you have.  (We speak a lot about personal agency in our work on burnout, which you can find at

Underlying Beliefs

Our underlying beliefs can sometimes prevent us from accessing our personal agency.  We believe that we shouldn’t show our strength or that it’s not the right time or place.  Sometimes, our underlying beliefs about ourselves and about the world are so hidden that we can’t see them ourselves – even when we try.  Sometimes, they’re the echoes of the voices that we heard in our childhood that we now believe are our own.

Finding these beliefs is often about asking why, despite our desire to change, we’re not changing.  Immunity to Change is a helpful framework for discovering what limiting beliefs are holding us back.


The anti-power to resilience is catastrophizing.  That is, the propensity to evaluate things in the most negative possible light.  The stressor is certain, and its impact overwhelming.  A friend and comedian has a routine where he speaks about how his mom was a master at catastrophizing.  She went from he couldn’t take care of a dog to he couldn’t take care of a baby and he’d be arrested for child neglect – all in the space of a single breath.

We can dampen catastrophizing by attempting to ground our thoughts in reality.  Asking questions like, “Has this ever happened?  What was the result last time?  And what’s different?” can sometimes break us free from the grips of an overwhelming prediction.  Other times, it’s the question “So what?” that allows us to see the resources at our disposal.

If you want to be resilient, you’ll have to rewire away from catastrophizing, and Hardwiring Happiness can help with that.

Denying Existence of the Problem

The real limiting factor is our ability to believe that we’re understood, and sometimes in their attempts to help us, other people minimize our problems to the point of denying their existence.  If you’ve never ridden on a plane before and are frightened, someone saying that it’s the safest form of travel isn’t just useless, it’s invalidating your concerns without hearing them.

So, on the one hand, we can acknowledge that our catastrophizing isn’t reality –but on the other hand, we want others to follow our path and understand how we got there.  We need to be understood even if the perspective we’re taking isn’t objectively real.

Changing the Perspective

When we’re looking at our resilience, it’s as simple and complex as looking for different alternatives, evidence, and implications.  It’s simple in that they’re just a few things to be done – but saying them is much easier than doing them.  Perhaps in that gap is The Resilience Factor.

Book Review-Seven Stories Every Salesperson Must Tell

Stories are narratives that help others put pieces together, and while many of the stories we encounter in the media and in the movies are fictional, the kinds of stories you’re implored to tell in Seven Stories Every Salesperson Must Tell are non-fictional.  They’re the stories that allow you to connect, differentiate, and ultimately close the deal.

Story Design

Of course, there’s content to a story.  There’s the “who.”  There’s the “what.”  There’s the “when.”  However, these components by themselves aren’t a story any more than flour, water, sugar, salt, and yeast are a bread.  There are plenty of guides to help you learn how to craft a story.  I’ve reviewed Wired for Story, Story Genius, and Building a StoryBrand, all of which can help you craft your experiences into a telling story.

Mike Adams is not focused on the development of the story itself, rather he’s walking us through what stories are important, why they’re important, and when they’re needed.  He does, however, offers a simple, four-step story design:

  • Setting: By convention, the setting includes time and place markers. It flags the start of the story, sending the audience a subliminal signal that a story is beginning. Failing to start a story effectively is a common way to lose and confuse your audience.
  • Complications: It’s a boring story if nothing unexpected happens to the “hero.”
  • Turning point: Something happens that shows the hero a way out. Although vulnerability and failure are the grist of good stories, we have a strong preference for stories that end on a positive note.
  • Resolution: The complications have been resolved. The hero is transformed, having learned something of value, and the business point is made. Tension and suspense are resolved

Who Closes the Deal

Before delving into the stories, it’s important to recognize that it’s not our reason that closes the deal.  The rational rider on top of the emotional elephant has the role of press secretary – not chief executive officer.  Jonathan Haidt developed an Elephant-Rider-Path model in The Happiness Hypothesis that Dan and Chip Heath picked up for their book, Switch.  The short version is the rider is our reason, rationale, and consciousness.  The elephant is our feelings – and they always win when they want to.  In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt clarifies that our rider acts much like a press secretary – making up plausible sounding reasons for whatever the elephant decides.

This is an important point because stories engage us emotionally as well as rationally and can therefore persuade us to act.

Prediction Engines

Adams makes the same point that was made in The Body Keeps the Score that we are fundamentally prediction engines.  It’s the primary purpose of consciousness.  He further makes the assertion that we update our world model when our predictions fail.  I’d qualify this with “sometimes.”  Sometimes, people deny reality and ignore the truth.  Sometimes, the corrections come in the form of laughter.  Inside Jokes explains that we laugh because our expectations were violated – and we detected it.  We’re rewarded with dopamine for correcting our mistake – without getting hurt.

The fact that we’re prediction machines that are constantly making corrections is important, because it means ideas that we submit to others, which are too outlandish or divergent from their beliefs, may be rejected as bad data rather than causing us to update our model.  When we’re communicating with clients, we’re constantly pushing the envelope so that we’re inside their acceptable range and far enough out that they might move it.

Selling Archetypes

Adams also explains that there are five selling archetypes:

  • The Authority — a sharp, confident voice tone
  • The Friend — a warm, easy, melodious voice tone
  • The Custodian — a low-pitched, furtive, secretive tone
  • The Investigator — a curious, questioning tone, used in exploratory conversation
  • The Negotiator — a reasoning, persuasive tone, used when negotiating

Of course, there are other models, like those found in The Challenger Sale; however, the models here work just fine too.

Hook Stories

There three stories that are designed to get customers to want to know more about you:

  • Your personal story
  • Key staff story
  • Company creation story

These stories provide a way for the customer to connect and identify with you, your staff, or the company itself.  These stories are designed to get people comfortable with who you are.

Fight Stories

The two kinds of fight stories are:

  • Insight stories
  • Success stores

These show why you’re the right people to work with.  They differentiate you from your competition and from the rest of the world.  These stories are critical, because insiders often place too much emphasis on small differences.  Clients want to know why we’re the only people that should be helping them.

Land Stories

There are two land stories:

  • Values stories
  • Teaching stories

These stories are to help you land – or close – the deal.  They share that you’re aligned with their values and that you’re going to be a partner with their development – as well as solving the specific problem.

Guides and Heros

The key thing that you need to remember when telling all the stories to your customers is that they are the hero – not you.  Your goal as a product or service provider is to act as their guide so that they can be successful.  That’s the point of Seven Stories Every Salesperson Must Tell.

Book Review-Marketing Made Simple: A Step-by-Step StoryBrand Guide for Any Business

It’s sat in the backlog for a while now.  Read but not written.  Pondered but not shared.  Marketing Made Simple: A Step-by-Step StoryBrand Guide for Any Business was recommended by a marketing consultant I was working with.  I appreciated the promise of the title but was skeptical of it as well.  Having sat on the implementation of the recommendations of the book (and the consultant) for just shy of a year, I’m not sure that the book lives up to its title – but, like George Box said, “All models are wrong, some are useful.”  I think you may find that there’s something for you in this work.

Building a StoryBrand

I’ve got to start with the fact that this isn’t the first book by Donald Miller that I’ve read.  I started with Building a StoryBrand.  It encourages you to use a framework – Campbell’s Hero’s Journey – to create a story about how your consumers can succeed with your help.  Miller calls this a BrandScript.  It’s what your brand says to the market and comes in various forms to communicate clarity in any space that you may find yourself in.

Marketing Made Simple translates that BrandScript into a website – which presumably sells your products or services.

Relationship: It’s Complicated

I’d love to say that you can follow the formula that Miller lays out and the result will be money beyond your wildest dreams.  However, it’s not that easy.  It’s complicated.  From my point of view, you must have the right offering – something that you’ll need to look for other books for.  Simon Sinek implores you to Start with Why, while Clayton Christensen encourages you to ask How Will You Measure Your Life? while Competing Against Luck and after having looked through the lens of The Innovator’s DNA.  Christensen believes that the core product question is what are the “jobs to be done” that your product or service offers?  He believes that it’s critical to get to clarity about what these jobs are, so you can communicate value to people that want these jobs done.  It’s like the old saying: “Consumers don’t want ¼” drill bits, they want ¼” holes.”

With the right offering, you then must connect to the right market.  Books like Duct Tape Marketing, The New Rules of Marketing and PR, Guerrilla Marketing, Launch!, Traction, Launch, and This is Marketing all try to help you connect with the market.

Once you’ve found the right product and the right market – and you know how to reach them – then and only then can Miller’s guide help you.  The problem is, of course, that you can’t know whether you have the right product or whether you can reach the “right” market.  So, what you get from Marketing Made Simple is a recipe for a website that presumably brings business.

What concerns me is that this leads to the easy out, “well, your product wasn’t right,” or “you didn’t connect with the right market audience” answers that aren’t helpful to entrepreneurs who are struggling to bring their ideas to life without killing themselves financially in the process.

That’s why the relationship with the book is complicated.  You’ll never know if the formula doesn’t work because it doesn’t work or because you implemented it wrong, you have the wrong product, or you aren’t able to connect with the right market.  That being said, there are two recommendations with a little additional support that Miller does offer – so it’s probably uncharitable to suggest that it’s just about the website.

Lead Generation and Email

Miller does briefly suggest that you need a lead-generating PDF – something that people want and are willing to exchange their email address for.  From there, he recommends a drip email campaign to keep people connected to your brand.

These are both fine ideas and can be very powerful.  The problem is neither does – or can – explain what works.  Having created dozens of lead generation resources, I can tell you that I never know what will generate interest – and what will not.  Sometimes, a tiny, crazy thing drives tons of leads.  Other times, the most beautifully crafted resource that was targeted at what people were telling me they needed flopped.  It’s about repetition and perseverance.  It’s what Brené Brown calls gold-plating grit (see Rising Strong).

The other side is equally challenging.  Email series that people have signed up for have much higher open rates than things like newsletters, which in turn have much higher open rates than SPAM.  However, what Miller fails to share is that many email campaigns fall flat.  They’re too short, don’t build enough trust, don’t transition people to the final product, and more.  It’s not just that you have to have an email campaign, but you must also get the right messages in – with the right timing that varies by audience – and you’ve got to have the right calls to action embedded.

Results are better than not having an email campaign, but it’s not like an email campaign magically converts prospects into customers – even when your website is amazing.  Getting email campaigns right takes time, perseverance, and a willingness to try, to be wrong, and to try again.  It may be simple – but that unfortunately doesn’t make it easy.

Relationship Stages

Miller suggests that consumers go through three stages of relationship with your brand:

  1. Curiosity
  2. Enlightenment
  3. Commitment

This is a good high-level overview; however, enlightenment and commitment are not a single thing.  There are degrees in both.  Often, customers only know a part of what you do, and step-by-step they learn more and become more committed to your organization.

He does clarify that people aren’t curious about you – rather, they’re curious about how they will solve their problem.  You will need to convert that curiosity about how to solve their problem into curiosity about how you might solve their problem.  However, care must be taken to minimize confusion about your offerings, because confusion is a vulnerable state – and one they won’t want to enter until they feel safe enough.

Miller further shares that intimacy and trust take time.  The need for time to elapse is one of the reasons why drip email campaigns are effective.

The Structure

Miller suggests that your website should be structured with a main page setup like this:

  • The Header: The very top of your website, in which you use very few words to let people know what you offer.
  • The Stakes: The section of the website in which you explain what you are saving customers from.
  • The Value Proposition: The section of a website in which you add value to your product or service by listing its benefits.
  • The Guide: The section of the website in which you introduce yourself as the brand or person who can solve your customer’s problem.
  • The Plan: The part where you reveal the path a customer must take to do business with you and solve their problem.
  • The Explanatory Paragraph: A long-form BrandScript in which you invite your customers into a story.
  • The Video: A video in which you reiterate much of what was on the website in more dynamic form.
  • Price Choices: The divisions of your company or your list of products.
  • Junk Drawer: The most important part of your website, because it’s where you’re going to list everything you previously thought was important


The overall tone you’re going for is empathetic – that you understand the customer – and authoritative – you know how to solve their problems.  Your goal is to do this in a way that anyone – even a caveman – could understand.  It’s not dumbing down the language or making the problems too simple, but it is using language that will resonate with the customer.

I’m not 100% sure that there is anything that can take marketing and make it simple, but at least Marketing Made Simple makes the attempt.

Book Review-When It Is Darkest: Why People Die by Suicide and What We Can Do to Prevent It

You never know how fate is going to deal a hand.  In the case of Rory O’Conner, he was going to be led towards suicide research only to find that the person who led him there would die by his own hand.  O’Conner wrote When It Is Darkest: Why People Die by Suicide and What We Can Do to Prevent It to share his research and life journey around the topic of suicide.  In it, he covers some familiar ground – and some ground unfamiliar.

A Plane Full of People

It was said that the average number of people impacted by a suicide was six.  This ignores Robin Dunbar’s work, as I discussed in my post High Orbit – Respecting Grieving.  The research of Julie Cerel in 2018 places the number of people impacted by a suicide at about 135.  With this, we’ve moved from those who are most devastated to also include those impacted by the death.  However, everyone in this list will feel the impact of the death.

One hundred thirty-five people fit on a Boeing 737 aircraft with a little room to spare – but not much.  Every suicide impacts the equivalent of a plane full of people, people who are all in some way grieving the loss of someone who they feel died needlessly.


Feeling trapped is one of the key indicators that someone may be suicidal.  Hopelessness, to express this another way, has a higher correlation to suicide than depression.  The tricky part is navigating the waters where someone feels trapped to understand whether the reason they feel trapped is real or simply perception.  Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning explains the situations in the Nazi concentration camps.  He speaks of the atrocities that were committed and how simple things like the way that people approached their imprisonment and impending death has a remarkable impact on their outcome.

It turns out in suicide research that there is a difference between externalities and feeling trapped compared to an internal feeling of entrapment, which may or may not have external factors.  It seems that the walls that we build ourselves are more likely to trap us and lead us towards suicide.

Hope and Trust

Feeling trapped is the absence of hope.  That absence of hope leads to the conclusion that the pain will never end, and things will never get better.  (See The Psychology of Hope for more on what hope is, and The Hope Circuit for more on why it’s important.)  One of the aspects of hope that is interesting is not only our belief in our own personal agency and how we can power through what is necessary to change our results but also the impact of the relative benevolence of the world.

The more that we can believe the world will help us, the more hope we can maintain.  Our belief in a benevolent world in which we trust in others is a protective factor for suicide in a world of challenges.


Perfectionism seems to lead to suicides – particularly the socially-prescribed perfectionism where we believe that others expect more from us than we’re capable of giving.  This is, for better or worse, a perception, and that perception may or may not match reality.  We can find that our boss really is demanding – or we can find that we perceive our boss as demanding.  From a psychological view, there is no difference.

At an organizational level, we create safety, like Amy Edmondson lays out in The Fearless Organization, by accepting people as they are – including their faults.  (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on accepting.)

The tricky thing with perfectionism is teasing out whether it’s the environment that expects perfection or whether the person themselves is projecting their perfectionism on the environment.

Poor Sleep

One of the most overlooked aspects of daily life is the need for sleep.  It’s the time when our brains perform needed maintenance.  When we don’t get it, things start to fall apart.  Sleep is an undercurrent that flows through Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers and How We Learn and is key to The Organized Mind.  It’s the driver for PTSD – in that disrupted sleep prevents the integration and sense-making of the events.  Opening Up and Transformed by Trauma both speak to the need to make sense of our traumatic experiences, and that’s what sleep does: it allows us to make sense of our world.

The negative impacts of sleep deprivation have been used as torture and hazing rituals.  Unfortunately, when you just can’t sleep and no one is forcing it on you, it’s harder to resolve.  People often feel powerless to build better sleep if they only know that when they close their eyes, they’re failing to get rest.

In the context of this conversation, sleep disturbances seem to be correlated with higher rates of suicide.

The Power of Connection

We do know that there are things which help reduce the burdens and appear to reduce suicide rates.  Perhaps the simplest of these is to try to understand and accept another person.  Many stories exist about people who were yearning for a connection they couldn’t find, and therefore they decided to die by suicide.

As simple and powerful as connection is, it isn’t always that simple.  Learning to just listen for understanding and not try to problem-solve is a skill that must be learned and relearned repeatedly.  Even if you don’t connect with someone well, their decision to die by suicide isn’t your fault.  As I explained in The Psychology of Not Holding Children Accountable, you can’t be responsible for something you can’t control – and you don’t control others.

Not Escaping but Accepting

Ultimately, the ability to cope with the slings and arrows of life is more about finding ways to accept yourself rather than trying to escape yourself.  Certainly, there’s always room for all of us to grow, but that doesn’t mean we’re wrong, broken, or unworthy.  Finding the narrow path with being happy for where you are today while being willing to continue to grow is what Carol Dweck explained in Mindset.  The fact that you’re not perfect or the best isn’t a sentence, it’s an opportunity.  In a way, it’s a way to accept life’s unfolding.

It allows us to have positive future thoughts about the relationships and experiences as well as the prosperity and joy we’ll have.  We know that positive future thoughts are associated with lower suicide rates.

Low Effort, High Results

Some of the most promising aspects of our world are our ability to find low-cost, low-effort interventions that can have a profound effect.  Simple letters mailed on a predictable interval may be systematized and not very personal, but it’s a signal to the person who is struggling that someone cares about them and will notice when they’re gone.

It seems like these letters provide just enough time for people to ponder how much people care during the brief windows when suicide seems like an option – or the only option.  The tragedy and opportunity in suicidal moments is that they tend to be quick and fleeting.  If we can only find strategies that allow them to pause for a bit, we’re likely to help them When It Is Darkest.

Book Review-The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind

Catalysts are different.  They make chemical reactions happen faster – but they’re not consumed in the process.  For those who are driving change, being a catalyst is what you want: better results without being used up.  The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind is a journey through the techniques that allow people accomplish change without being used up.

Immunity to Change

The key question is “Why hasn’t that person changed already?  What is blocking them?”  This is the precise question that Immunity to Change tries to answer.  Whether it’s a gap between espoused and in-practice beliefs or something as simple as not being aware of the need to change, before we look to coerce or push someone towards change, we should ask why they’re not changing already.  Influencer describes ways that you can encourage people to change using six different approaches.


The Catalyst proposes that there are five principles of change:

  1. Reactance – When pushed, people push back.
  2. Endowment – If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
  3. Distance – People don’t want to be persuaded.
  4. Uncertainty – Change often involves uncertainty.
  5. Corroborating Evidence – Sometimes one person, no matter how knowledgeable, is not enough.

These principles are echoes of things said by others.  For instance, in Diffusion of Innovations, Everett Rogers explains that people need to understand the relative advantage (endowment), that people change their attitudes through people they connect with (distance), and that the changes need to be compatible and trialable (to reduce uncertainty).  Compelled to Control explains that while we all want to control others, none of us really wants to be controlled (reactance).  In Changing Minds, it covers the idea of “storm the castle” (corroborating evidence).


If you tell jurors to ignore testimony, they may unconsciously weight it more heavily.  When you tell people they have to do something, they often resist it more vehemently than they would have had they not been told to do it.  We’ve tapped into what Fascinate would call rebellion.  It’s what Steven Reiss in his 16 motivators would call independence.  (See Who Am I?)  Jonathan Haidt, in the foundations of morality, calls it liberty.  (See The Righteous Mind.)  When people feel as if their freedom and independence is threatened, they sometimes experience a boomerang effect – they more strongly defend their right to not do what they’re being asked to do.  (See Decision Making for more on the boomerang effect.)

Paradox of Choice

Specific calls to action result in higher rates of response.  However, they can trigger resistance.  Giving people options helps them feel like they’re in control.  However, too many options will lead to anxiety, as The Paradox of Choice explains.  The goal is to offer a set of options – but not too many options.  The narrow road between these two points leads to others being willing to change.


As humans, we seek apparent coherence between our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.  This need for apparent coherence is addressed in The Joy of Burnout with the idea that the incoherence is friction that stops us from achieving our goals.  Opening Up looks at the need for coherence of the story of our lives as fundamental.  A failure to achieve coherence in a story is therefore disruptive to our psyche.

Angry with the Help

One of the consistent ways to help endear yourself to others is to remain consistent in your intention to help others – and to repeatedly communicate that intention.  When people believe that you’re trying to help them, it’s difficult for them to get – or remain – angry with you.

In Destructive Emotions, the Dalai Lama explains that in Eastern philosophies, anger is disappointment directed.  Disappointment is judgement based, and it’s hard to judge that someone should be doing more to help you.  This perspective is shared by books like Humble Inquiry and Getting to Yes.

Zones of Acceptance and Rejection

Some messages people accept from anyone, and others they only accept when they feel they have no other answers.  Thomas Gilovich explains in How We Know What Isn’t So how we switch the question from “Can I believe this?” to “Must I believe this?” when we move outside of our acceptable zone.  The switch in questions is critical, because the standards for the first question are substantially lower than the second.

When working with others, it can be hard to tease out where their zone of acceptability is and where we’ll cross over into the land of rejection.  This distinction is important, because we want to deliver messages just inside the edge of acceptability to continue to open them up to further and further zones of acceptance.

Motivational Interviewing does this by first establishing rapport and then beginning to elicit information from the person about their addiction (or reason for counseling) with the ultimate goal of focusing them in on a specific aspect of the problem that is solvable and a strategy to address that area.  If we want to change people’s behaviors, we have to know where they’re starting from.

Vitamins and Painkillers

Medicine and pills of all kinds are an essential part of our everyday life, but they’re fundamentally different in the kinds of demands they create.  Vitamins are preventative, long-term pills designed to ensure success over the long term.  An antibiotic doesn’t resolve any immediate problem but provides medium-term relief for a specific problem.  Painkillers, however, solve a specific immediate and important problem.

When you’re describing your change, are you describing it in the language of vitamins – or painkillers?  Must the person make this change, or is it just a good idea?  Only half of the United States population takes vitamins – but nearly everyone will take a painkiller when they need it.


Ultimately, our goal in creating change is to remove the barriers between the person and the new, desirable behaviors.  That means removing small barriers – even if they seem trivial to us – because, as the book Demand explains, small barriers often have a disproportionate blocking capability to their size.  Sometimes, the key thing that needs to be unstuck is the aversion to the things they’ll lose and the uncertainty that comes with the change.  William Bridges in Managing Transitions focuses on these key problems, indicating that they’re the real barrier to change.

Sometimes, unsticking means backing up and taking a broader view.  In others, it means temporarily accepting some untenable premise so that you can hear the other person’s perspective.  Maybe when you’re done, and you understand, you can propose a solution that will make you seem like The Catalyst.

Book Review-Rethinking Suicide: Why Prevention Fails, and How We Can Do Better

When you read a lot, you start to realize that many books fall into a common pattern.  They offer small enhancements on what you already know – that is, until you find the book that causes you to rethink what you know.  That’s what Rethinking Suicide: Why Prevention Fails, and How We Can Do Better does.  It questions what we know about preventing suicide, including how we identify those at risk and what we do to treat those who we believe are at risk.  Taking a slightly heretical view, Craig Bryan walks through what we know – and what we don’t but assume we know.


I have no problem with heresy.  I know that sometimes it’s necessary to move forward.  As Thomas Gilovich explains in How We Know What Isn’t So, we often believe things that aren’t true, and those beliefs hold us back.  More recently, Adam Grant expresses the same sentiment in Think Again.  My friend Paul Culmsee and Kailash Awati wrote two books that are intentionally heretical – The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices and The Heretic’s Guide to Management.

The need for heresy comes from our desire to think of the world as simple and predictable.  However, reality doesn’t cooperate with our desires.  The Halo Effect explains that we live in a probabilistic world – not a deterministic world.  That means we can’t expect that A+B=C – we can only expect that A+B often leads to C, but occasionally leads to D, E, or F.  Certainty is an illusion, and a rudimentary understanding of statistics is essential.

Douglas Hubbard explains the basics of statistics in How to Measure Anything in a way that is sufficient for most people to realize how their beliefs about the world may be wrong – and what to do to adjust them to more closely match reality.  Nate Silver in The Signal and the Noise gives more complex examples in the context of global issues.  Despite good resources, statistics are hard, and few people believe that the world is anything other than deterministic – and therefore believe understanding statistics isn’t important.

Suicide is Wicked

Wicked problems were first described by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber in 1973.  I speak about it in my review of Dialogue Mapping, which explains the process that Rittel designed, Issue Based Information System (IBIS), to help minimize the negatives when working with wicked problems.  (I’ve also got a summary of wicked problems in the change models library.)  One of the ten criteria of a wicked problem is that there is no definitive formulation of the problem.  We have that with suicide, as we struggle to measure intent and categorize behaviors as suicidal, para-suicidal, or non-suicidal.

The conflicts in the space of suicidology are seemingly limitless.  Some believe that we must prevent all suicides – but others recognize that some lives aren’t worth living.  We struggle with the sense that people believe they are burdens, but we fail to accept that, for some people, they may be right.

Because suicide is a wicked problem, our objective can’t be to “solve” or “resolve” it.  Instead, we’ve got to treat it like a dilemma, seeking to find the place of least harm.


One of common attributes of science is the accidental discovery of correlations that don’t mean causation.  In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman explains the difference and how we often confuse them.  The first step to finding causation – or, more accurately, factors influencing the causation of the negative outcome – is to identify which things are correlated to the negative outcome.

We’ve got a long list of things we know are correlated to suicidality: low cholesterol, low serotonin, high cortisol, toxoplasma gondii infection, brain activation patterns as measure by an fMRI, and many more.  (See The Neuroscience of Suicidal Behavior for more on toxoplasma gondii.)  In most cases, the correlation rates are too low to be a possible causal factor.  However, they may point to the right answer that we’ve not yet found.

In Bryan’s studies, he considered that suicidal ideation might correlate with deployments.  However, it seems that this may not be the root issue, as he also identified other factors – including age and belongingness – that seemed to be important.  It’s possible, as others have suggested, that belongingness – not deployments – may be driving the suicide rates.  (See Why People Die by Suicide for support about belongingness and other ideas.)

Sometimes the misdirection that we find in suicide research is self-induced.  Confirmation bias causes us to interpret what we see in ways that are positive to our point of view.  I cover confirmation bias at length in my review of Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate  (The first post of the two-part review covers more from the book.)  The short version is that you’ll find what you look for, and you won’t see important things when your mind is distracted trying to justify your decisions or process other information – as The Invisible Gorilla explains.

Which Way Do We Go?

Bryan raises an important philosophical question with, “If something isn’t working, doing more of that same thing probably won’t work either.”  Of course, as a probabilistic statement, he’s right.  If we have lots of experience that demonstrates that something doesn’t work, we probably don’t need to do more of it.  However, this is countered with the fact that many things need to build pressure, power, and energy to overcome inertia.  This leads to the key question about whether we should keep doing the same thing – or try something different.

I’ve struggled with this question for years.  Jim Collins in Good to Great calls it the Stockdale paradox.  It comes up repeatedly.  Entrepreneurs wonder when they should give up.  There are plenty of stories about how they had to hang on to the very last before they could succeed – however, we don’t hear the stories of the entrepreneurs who held on too long and lost everything.  Those aren’t the stories that “make it into print.”

So, I fundamentally agree that we’re doing things in suicidology that are proven to not work, and we need to stop doing them.  However, I’m cautious about giving up on unproven, new approaches that may not have had the opportunity to prove themselves yet.

With No Warning

Conventional thinking about suicide is that people send out warning signals – or at least we can devise some sort of assessment that results in a clear risk/no-risk determination for people.  However, it appears that this isn’t reality – and it’s certainly not true in every case.  Bryan walks through the math that indicates for every person who speaks about suicidal ideation and later dies by suicide, 17 discuss it but die by something other than suicide instead.  We pursue universal screening with the idea that if people describe themselves as struggling with suicidal ideation, they need to be treated immediately.  Best case, this will generate roughly 20 times the number of “false positives.”  In short, even the signals that we believe are the most compelling may be so buried by noise that they cause as much harm to system capacity as they do good.

But that’s people who indicate in some way that they have suicidal thoughts – what about the people who don’t indicate?  Surely, we should be able to determine their risk for suicide.  Surely, we’d be wrong.  First, the facts: there aren’t any tools that have demonstrated sufficient discriminatory capabilities.  Second, the statistics are heavily against the probability that we’ll be able to accomplish the goal.  With a suicide rate at roughly 1:7,000, the event is just too infrequent for our tools to detect it – even if it were persistent, but it doesn’t seem like it is.

There are countless cases where people had spent nearly no time considering suicide before attempting.  With the benefit of someone to interview, it’s possible to get direct answers about the timeline – as opposed to psychological autopsies that can only guess at what happened.  Clearly, there are some biases in self-reports, but too many cases of too many people who have nothing to lose by describing their planning indicates there was no – or very little – time spent planning.

If this is true, it makes the possibility of assessment accuracy even less likely.  In short, there’s no warning – and that makes it impossible to predict.  (Joiner expressed similar concerns about the lack of indication and planning in Myths about Suicide.)


From the outside looking in, it appears that people jump from a normal state to a suicidal state without any warning.  This may be a strobe-light-type effect because we’re not sampling frequently enough, or it can be a literal truth that the transition between states is almost instantaneous.  In The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb explains improbable events and how things can move from one state to another rapidly.

Bryan’s view of this is expressed best in a figure:

Here, the risk of suicide can transition rapidly from low to high-risk – and vice versa.  Bryan makes the point that the velocity of and mechanisms for the transition need not be the same in both directions.  It’s possible to transition quickly in one direction but to have the opposite transition be much different.  Consider inertia.  An object in motion gives up very little of its momentum to friction until it stops.  Once it stops, it takes a considerable force to break inertia.

A different, less known, example would be the transition in a plane between lift occurring over the wings and a stall.  In a stall, the wings generate substantially less lift than the same forward motion not in stall.  Most folks think of a stall as the aircraft falling out of the sky, but in reality, the flow of air over the wings has been disrupted and is no longer generating the low-pressure region that creates lift.  I share this example because very small changes in the surface of the wing – or its leading edge – can create stall conditions in situations that would normally not be a problem.  Pilots pay attention to the angle-of-attack of the air moving across the wing, as they know that this is the most easily controllable factor that can lead to – or avoid – a stall.  When the angle of attack exceeds the tolerance, the resulting stall can be somewhat dramatic.

Bryan’s work here is reminiscent of Lewin’s work in Principles of Topological Psychology, where he created a map of psychological regions with boundaries.  Bryan’s work extends this to 3-dimensional space.

Sucking My Will to Live

Often, suicide is conceptualized as ambivalence.  It’s the struggle between the desire to live and the desire to die.  Unsurprisingly, those with a desire to die had a higher suicide rate.  Those with the highest desire to die and the lowest levels of wishing to live were six times more likely to die than everyone else.  However, even a small reason for living was often enough to hold off the suicidal instinct.

The problem is, what happens when the reasons for living collapse – even temporarily?  Consider that the reasons for living are a very powerful drive, as explained in The Worm at the Core.  Perhaps even low levels are powerful enough to hold off a desire for death.  But our desire for living and our desire for death are not fixed points.  Rather, they’re constantly ebbing and flowing as we travel through life.  The greater the normal state of reasons for living, the less likely that the value will ever reach zero.  Perhaps reaching zero reason for living requires hopelessness.  Marty Seligman has spent his career researching learned helplessness and our ability to feel control, influence, or agency in our world.  In his book, The Hope Circuit, he shares about his journey and the power of hope.

Certainly, there are life events and circumstances that invoke pain and lead us towards a desire for death.  When we experience loss and how we grieve that loss are important factors for ensuring that we don’t feel so much pain that our desire to die overwhelms our reasons for living.  The Grief Recovery Handbook explains that we all grieve differently, and it pushes back against Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ perspectives that we all experience – to a greater or lesser degree – the same emotions.  In On Death and Dying, she records her perspectives on the patients that she saw in the process of dying.  In summary, the process of grief is the processing of loss – and we all do it differently.

Marshmallows and Man

When Walter Mischel first tested children at the Stanford Preschool, he had no idea that he’d find that the ability to delay gratification would predict long-term success in life.  His work recorded in The Marshmallow Test offered a variety of sweets – including marshmallows – which children could eat then, or they could wait while the investigator was out of the room for an indeterminate amount of time and get double the reward.  It’s a high rate of return, but only if you can defer the temptation long enough.  Those that did have self-control did better in life.

It comes up because, in Bryan’s map, one of the dimensions is risky decision-making.  Those who can defer gratification are less likely to make risky decisions.  Whether it’s the Iowa Gambling Task or other tasks, we can see that being able to be patient for small wins and identify winning strategies leads us to believe we can get more in the future – and seems to reduce our chances that we’ll take the suicide exit.  Evidence seems to show that tasks that are particularly difficult are those where the rules change in the middle and the things that worked before no longer work.

The research seems to say that those who are at increased risk for suicide may recognize that the rules have changed and therefore they should be using a different strategy – they just don’t seem to do it.  It’s not just that they don’t recognize the rule changes, they try to apply the old rules to the new situation, and it doesn’t work.

Rules for Life

Two key things can help people survive suicide.  First is just finding a way to slow down decision making to allow for things to recover and building braking systems to halt downward spirals.  Slowing decision making is familiar to anyone who has heard how to deal with anger.  The common refrain is count to ten, take a walk, and give it time.  Building braking systems to stop spiraling self-talk is trickier but is possible.

There are three proven effective strategies for suicide prevention – Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Cognitive Behavior Therapy for Suicide Prevention (CBT-SP), and Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicidality (CAMS).  All the other strategies are unproven or disproven despite their prevalence.  As was discussed in Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology, people do a lot of therapies that aren’t proven and continue to hold on to therapies that have been disproven.  Tests like the Rorschach inkblot tests and Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) fail to meet the standard for federal evidence but are still routinely used.  The Cult of Personality Testing explains the fascination with these sorts of disproven (or mixed results) methods.

Changing the Game

The thing is, the message isn’t that all hope is lost and there’s nothing to be done.  There are a lot of things that can be done to reduce the prevalence of suicide – it’s just not the things we think or even the things that we’ve been doing.  Simple approaches like blocking paths by adding anti-suicide fences to bridges or adding locks to guns make a difference.  Rarely do people change their preferred method, and frequently it only takes enough time to unlock a gun for the feelings of suicidality to pass.  (Judged by the fact that the suicide rate decreases in the presence of gun locks.)

We may have to start thinking of suicide like we think of traffic accidents.  We know that they occur at a relative frequency, but we can’t say who will – or won’t – be involved.  The result is that we must work to make things safer through eliminating threats or instituting barriers.  Maybe the best way to make a change with suicide is to start by Rethinking Suicide.

Professional Learning x2

Most people believe that professional learning is one thing.  It’s not.  It is, in fact, at least two distinct things – each with their own objectives and needs.

Jobs to Be Done

Clayton Christensen made the idea of “Jobs to be done” popular in The Innovator’s DNA and Competing Against Luck.  Fundamentally, it’s the question about what it is that a product or service is really being asked to do – what job is it being hired for.  It builds on the idea that consumers don’t really want ¼” drill bits – they want ¼” holes.  Christensen takes that further.  He uses the example of a milkshake.

In his research, he found two different uses for milkshakes – each requiring different characteristics.  In the morning, they are used as a way to stave off hunger until lunch.  In the afternoon, they are a treat for children.  In the morning, the thicker they are, the better.  In the afternoon, owing to the desire for parents to move on with the next thing, the thinner they are, the quicker they can be downed by children and the faster they can move on with the next thing.

On the surface, it’s one thing: a milkshake.  However, on closer examination, it’s two things: a food alternative and a treat.  When we look at training, we’re looking at two things with very different goals.

Degrees, Credentials, and Certificates

The first kind of learning that everyone is familiar with is the kind that leads to degrees, credentials, and certificates.  The point of them is to get a job, a better job, a promotion, or more money.  The truth is that the learning isn’t the goal, the job opportunities are.  It’s from that lens that we must view learning for professional gain and recognition.

What matters is the “paper.”  The learner will do what’s necessary to get it.  The learning is a requirement for it, so the learner does it.  Not necessarily because they’re interested in the learning but rather because they’re interested in the opportunities that the “paper” means.

The point of the “paper” – whether a degree, credential, or certificate – is that the employers value it.  If they value it, they’re willing to hire, promote, and pay for it.  Protecting the value proposition for the “paper” is essential.  That’s why colleges are accredited by various bodies and why credentials are based on certifications and experience.

Generally speaking, degrees command the most reward because, in part, they’re seen as greater effort and greater validation.  Certifications are less work but still validated with some sort of reasonable assessment that the learning objectives have been internalized.  Their lower effort yet validation of knowledge allows them to command a substantial, if less than a degree, level of response from employers.  Certificates meet a lower bar of simply having completed the work without meaningful validation that the information has been learned – and as a result have a smaller command for pay and promotion than the other two.

What’s reasonable validation that the learning – which the company wants – has been accomplished?  It can be demonstrating the skills, but in most cases today, a multiple-choice, question-and-answer test is used as a proxy, because implementing testing of actual skills is too expensive and prone to biases.  A key distinction between the kind of testing performed for degrees and certifications is that these exams are proctored.  That is, someone is watching the student and validating their identity to eliminate any kind of cheating.  While certificates may have testing associated with them, the testing is largely perfunctory, and therefore the test isn’t proctored.

Most of the time, organizations are asking the “paper” to convey some sort of business skill that they can then use the “paper” as a proxy for.  Bachelor’s degrees are used as a proxy for the degree to which someone can learn on their own and manage themselves.  (This can either be explicit or, more often, implicitly expected.)  Credentials are a proxy for the industry-relevant skills that make the professional conversant and capable.  Certificates are often used to demonstrate a much smaller set of skills – with less validation of the learning.


All the rage in training and development circles for more than a decade, microlearning is a response to too much work being done on the kinds of learning that lead to better jobs, roles, and renumeration (pay).  The concept is that people don’t want to spend a week in class to become an expert information architect, they just want to know how to create a search page.  They might be able to be taught how to create a search page in 10 or 15 minutes.  The focus is on “how do I get my immediate job done?” – rather than becoming competent in a new profession or obtain specialization in a profession.

Just as there are legitimate reasons why someone would need to learn a new profession, there are legitimate reasons that they would need to learn how to do a single, focused thing.  In today’s world, expediency is necessary for agility.  We can’t afford to overtrain someone who just needs a small piece of knowledge.

The key difference between what is important for microlearning and more broad kinds of professional development is that microlearning has very tiny objectives for what is being learned.  In most cases, this learning is about how to do something and less about when and why.  The simple reason for this is the same observation that Benjamin Bloom and his colleagues noted in 1956 when they created the taxonomy of hierarchical learning objectives (in the cognitive domain).  Educational objectives like recognition and recall are quick and easy to teach.  Objectives like teaching the capacity for analysis and synthesis in a space require substantially more effort.

Microlearning is often the correct thing when people just need to know how to do something and aren’t necessarily engaged as a part of evaluating when or why the task should be done.  This, of course, exposes them to the potential for using the “how” when the ethics of the situation might dictate something else.  Without the context to evaluate when and why, there’s no way to evaluate the ethical and moral considerations for the task.

In the end, the criticism of microlearning is that it denies the learner the broader context that they may need.  One of the proposed solutions to this is to stitch together different bits of microlearning into a learning path.

The Legitimacy of Learning Paths

The answer to the gap between these two learning objectives is supposed to be learning paths, but using them as the bridge oversimplifies the gap that exists between the two kinds of learning – and it complicates an overlapping coverage problem.

Before I graduated high school, I was taking software development courses.  I thought that each new language I learned increased my marketability and improved my skills.  I learned COBOL and FORTRAN.  I learned BASIC and C.  This provided me with a great deal of syntactical knowledge about the various languages and how to write a program in them.  However, because I spent so much time learning the syntax, I didn’t learn the finer points of software design – regrettably, I wouldn’t learn that until much later in my career.

The point is that learning four languages isn’t the same as learning one language and the advanced techniques that can be used in that language to improve the probability of creating performant, reliable, and maintainable software.  Similarly, learning 20 ways to do something doesn’t help me learn when to do it or why.

Learning paths work – but only when they’re stitching together a set of individual “how-to” skills that can be leveraged in concert with one another.  Learning the basics of networking and the basics of databases helps if you’re building an application that needs both – but it doesn’t teach good design.

Another problem with learning paths is that they don’t really operate at the level of the skill.  Learning paths stitch together micro-courses.  These courses each have their own skills – and sometimes those skills overlap and sometimes there are gaps.  Consider the idea of network skills as an example.

One course might teach the basics of TCP/IP with emphasis on setting an IP address, subnet mask, and default gateway as a mechanism for basic communications.  Another course might teach how to wire together an ethernet network, including cable lengths and how to crimp on connectors.  Neither course covers how the physical addresses used in ethernet are converted to the logical addresses of TCP/IP.  Both may cover a bit of what the other covers – or they may leave gaps.

The result is that the learner either isn’t given the pieces to connect one topic to the other or they’re giving duplicate and often slightly conflicting coverage of the same topic.  Both are disorienting to the learner – either because they can’t navigate the gap or because they don’t know which course to “believe.”  Or, said less strongly, they may question which model of networking is better for them to use.

Absolutely learning paths are valuable – but they’re not a solution to every problem.  Another solution, badges, for instance, are used to deal with the motivation problem for non-essential microlearning.

We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Badges

Building on the fact that people respond well to recognition, learning management systems have proliferated badges.  Every course completion conveys a completion badge as well as badges for completing multiple courses, completing series of courses in a learning path, etc.  The result is that we’re devaluing the badges themselves.

In 1968, Frederick Herzberg published an article in Harvard Business Review, “One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?”  His results were clear.  Achievement and recognition topped the list of things to do to motivate employees.  As the most requested reprint of any HBR article, it’s a critical piece of what we know about human behavior in organizations – even if it’s a bit dated.

The result was we started giving paper awards for all sorts of things, and eventually people’s cubicles became memorials to the paper awards.  When learning management systems made it easier to automate the process, we started adding badges to everything – and as a result, we made it impossible to tell what the badge even was.  Instead of individual badges having meaning, it became a game of collecting the most badges.

More importantly, because the badges were being given for taking a class – but not necessarily testing to prove competence or even recall of the material – they became participation trophies.  You didn’t have to learn or develop skills, you just had to show up, and that’s not what organizations need or are willing to pay for.

Confusing One for the Other

One of the challenges of the learning and development industry is understanding whether a learning objective is of the former or the latter category.  When are we trying to prepare someone to be successful in a new space or profession versus when just trying to provide them a missing skill?  In the rush to make things easier with fewer barriers, we sometimes swap out microlearning for situations where that’s not the right answer.  Conversely, we have historically forced people through longer programs than they needed because we wanted them to have the complete picture – when it wasn’t what they needed.

When you’re offering training, make sure you know which you’re offering.

Book Review-Critical Suicidology

Critical Suicidology can either refer to the critical need for people to become more versed in suicidology or being critical of suicidology’s progress – or both.  While suicide rates vary country by country and year by year, they’re climbing and globally are at about 16 per 100,000 people.  That’s a tragedy that generally lands suicide in the top ten list of mortality in the United States every year.  However, because of the stigmas associated with it, it’s often underfunded, poorly understood, and, in some cases, even taboo.

Rethinking Research

The research that is published in the various journals that cover suicide is woefully insufficient to move the study forward.  There are many quantitative studies but few studies of interventions.  Too many rehash the same associations that are already known.  People who abuse alcohol and those with depression are at greater risk of suicide.  There is the continued repetition of the sociological impacts to suicide.  Older white men beware, because you’re at the greatest risk – but, of course, that isn’t something you can directly intervene to change.

Critical Suicidology has a strong emphasis on the need for more qualitative research.  I agree in part but certainly not to the degree proposed.  The key isn’t in what there should be more of but rather what there should be less of.  It’s too easy to process the statistics available and translate them into risk maps based on useless, relatively unchangeable criteria.  The proposal for qualitative research is to increase understanding of what the drivers are – instead of just repeating an endless stream of numbers.

On this point I agree; however, I think that the better option is to find approaches to interventional testing to see if what we already know can be operationalized into solutions.  We know that Toxoplasma gondii reduces rats’ fear of cat urine, and that it infects 30-40% of the world population.  We have simple tests and treatment.  It would be great to know if we can reduce suicide by simply treating a parasite that causes us to lose our fear of death.

Maybe it’s a good idea to take the fMRI research that identifies activation patterns in the brain that seem to lead to suicide and convert them to be used with qEEG machines, which have a substantially lower cost both in terms of acquisition as well as the time to get to a result.  In less than 15 minutes, we should be able to identify the patterns that seem to lead to suicide.  If we can identify these people, we can get them into treatment.  If part of the problem is brain activation patterns, we can teach meditation and mindfulness to change those activation patterns.

We know that serotonin, cortisol, and are low cholesterol all are correlated with suicide – maybe we can use artificial intelligence to discover relationships with these three indicators that give us a good sense for who is at risk for suicide.

While I strongly support the need to get better ideas about what the root causes are and even agree that qualitative studies are the best way to get at these, I believe that the greatest need is interventional studies to see if we can apply what we already know more broadly.

What Answers

It’s true, as the book says, that we need to understand what our research goals are before we can choose appropriate methods to answer them.  I think we can always gain more clarity, but in general, we know that we must solve the problem of detection and the problem of protection.  We, of course, need to learn in more detail how we’re going to accomplish this.  However, I think we’ve got plenty of things queued up for appropriate interventional research.

The Negative Case

A key point that leads to wanting more qualitative research is the fact that many people with the identified risk factors – like depression and alcoholism – don’t die by suicide.  Many don’t attempt suicide.  If these are causal factors, then why do so few with the conditions go on to attempt or complete suicide?

It’s my belief that we’re talking about a recipe that needs to have certain ingredients that come together at the right times to end in a tragic result.  Consider making bread.  Most breads require flour, sugar, water, yeast, and salt.  If you have all of these – plus the special things called for in specialty recipes – then you can make bread.  You must have enough of all these.

Maybe depression is a key ingredient, but all of us have some degree of sub-clinical depression (without even accounting for the fact that depression diagnosis continues to rise).  Maybe having a clinical level of depression makes it easier to get the right ingredients – but the question remains what are the others?


What makes a situation intolerable?  Many people who struggle with chronic pain find ways to manage it and don’t fall into hopelessness and suicide.  Others who suddenly feel vulnerable for the first time – or the first time in a long time – find the situation intolerable and resort to suicide.  Certainly, the answer to tolerating the world is the development of coping skills.  However, what coping skills are they, and how do we ensure that people know how to appropriately deploy them?

If we want to reduce the rate at which people find themselves in intolerable situations, we can start first with coping skills.  But in the spirit of social justice, we should evaluate the situations under which we could prevent the situations that require coping skills.  We can’t prevent the tragic death of someone close to us through accidental or homicidal means, but we can address systemic persecution and victimization.

Suicide is the Solution

Suicide is often framed as a problem to be resolved – and appropriately so.  However, there’s a different conceptualization of suicide that may make it easier to work with.  What most people fail to realize is that suicide is a solution.  It is a solution to the problems the person believes they have.  It may be a bad solution, the wrong solution, etc., but for them, it appears to be a solution.  Understanding this framing gives us the opportunity to look backwards into the causes that make people’s life so unbearable that suicide seems like the right option.  In The Suicidal Mind, Shneidman describes suicide as an escape from psychache (psychic pain).

In some societies, however, suicide is a reasonable option.  When someone is elderly and feels as if they’ll become a burden to their kin, they can choose suicide as an option.  In some places in the United States – under strict regulation – there are laws which allow for others to support someone’s suicide.  We approach suicide as if every suicide should be prevented, but there are many cases where the alternative is worse than death.

Should I Say or Not

The tragic news is that 70-80% of people who die by suicide do so after having told someone about their intent.  Those people didn’t know how to respond in a way that helped the person survive.  We should better equip everyone to support others when they’re suicidal.  However, it’s equally tragic that 20-30% of people who are considering suicide never tell anyone.  They don’t help others understand their struggles so they can share it and help lessen the load.  They believe that they are alone and don’t reach out.

There’s certainly an aspect of this that is the impulsivity that some have when becoming suicidal.  There’s also an aspect, I’m sure, of how safe people feel to express their thoughts about suicide.  What might happen to them if they do share their thoughts?  All of that leads people to not share their thoughts of suicide and instead suffer alone.


Of those who heard of the plans for suicide and weren’t able to help enough, there are some who will minimize the concerns or blow them off.  They think, incorrectly, that if people want to suicide, they’ll do it.  They won’t just talk about it.  (See Myths About Suicide for more.)  Even if they’re serious about the attempt, they may minimize the situations that lead the person to feel as if suicide is the answer.

Never having been trained in techniques like Motivational Interviewing, they don’t realize that it’s important to validate someone’s experience before convincing them that they can change the way they see it.  In short, the suicidal person who often believes they need to be heard feels even more disconnected.

Defining Moments

They’re called defining moments because they are the moment that define our lives.  The problem is that people are all too quick to call a death by suicide a defining moment.  Too many people who die by suicide have their suicide labeled as their defining moment instead of looking at the best they had done or the totality of their life.

For many, the tragedy of suicide follows a sense that they’re can’t ever be enough.  There is pressure to perform or to conform to other standards.  The result is an unsolvable stress.  Too many people who die by suicide are high achievers who have standards that they can never meet.  The result is they do amazing things their entire life and, in their desperation, end up believing suicide is the answer, and people then define them by their desperation instead of their achievements.


A diagnosis – of any kind – feels like an inescapable label.  Someone stamped a label upon you, and it won’t peel off.  However, one of the insights from Critical Suicidology is that diagnosis exists not on you but in the space between you and the person that tried to apply the diagnosis.  While a great deal of progress has been made on repeatability of mental health diagnosis, they’re still rather subjective in most cases.

Furthermore, the implications of the label aren’t well articulated.  People believe that the diagnosis means something that it may – or may not.  When we’re considering how other perceive us – which is what a diagnosis is – we should consider that it’s their perception that will have some degree of truth and some degree of fiction about us, and the same goes for the person making the diagnosis.

Meaning in the Suffering

Everyone has suffering.  Buddhism and Christianity both share stories that comment on the fact that everyone has suffering.  They leave little doubt that there is suffering in every life.  However, what’s different is how people respond to that suffering and find meaning in it.  For some, the meaning is divine intervention, something that God has willed.  For others, it’s a newfound calling, something that becomes a new purpose.

In twelve-step programs, one of the keys is service so that people can leverage their pains to support the growth of others.  (See Why and How 12-Step Groups Work.)  If you want to help someone avoid suicide, the right answer may be to place them with others who are potentially suicidal so they can leverage their experiences to help others.

Responsibility to Heal

No matter what factors in life have led to your having been hurt, it’s your responsibility to heal yourself.  You must do whatever must be done to accomplish the healing, so that you’re not hurt as easily again.  (See Hurtful, Hurt, and Hurting for more.)  Perhaps one way that you can start healing is to get Critical Suicidology and to get critical of the ways that you think about suicide.

Book Review-Suicide: Understanding and Responding

Ultimately, what people want is to know how to respond to loved ones, colleagues, and community who are potentially suicidal in a way that helps them to recognize their value and allows them to make the decision to continue living.  Suicide: Understanding and Responding seeks to create a guide for understanding something that is largely not understandable and responding in ways that reduce the probability of a suicide attempt.

Positive Alternatives

Edward Shneidman in The Suicidal Mind said that “only” was the four-letter word of suicide – as in people believe that suicide is the only option.  Another way to think about the problem is that the positive alternatives to suicide have lost their credence.  Even if they’re able to see that there are options, they believe these options aren’t viable.  Maybe they perceive them as too difficult or too improbable.  In any case, the alternatives lose their salience.

Another problem with decision making and suicide is that people don’t really do rational decision making, as acknowledged by Gary Klein in Sources of Power and Irving Janis in Decision Making.  Instead, we evaluate alternatives until we believe we’ve reached a solution that’s good enough.  Barry Swartz in The Paradox of Choice explains that this is “satisficing” – and it’s often the best way to make decisions for future happiness.  This is obviously not the case with suicide, since there is then no future in which to be happy.

With satisficing, we make sequential evaluation of alternatives until we discover one that we believe is “good enough.”  If the limitations of suicide are sufficiently obscured from consciousness, it’s possible that suicide is perceived to be a valid alternative.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons why it’s important to restrict means of suicide from those who might consider it a valid option.  If you can delay the ability to act for a short time, it’s possible that the suicidal individual will decide that it wasn’t such a great option after all.

They may discover that the pain (physical or psychache) they are feeling is temporary, contextually dependent, and isn’t about them.  In this discovery, they realize that there are other options to end their pain than suicide.  In fact, the solution may just be to be patient.


One of the challenges in helping others, whether medically or psychologically, is to help at the right time, the right way, and in the right amount.  Many have explained that you shouldn’t do for someone the things that they can do themselves but should do those things they need but are not able to do themselves.  This simple framework allows for decisions based on how they’ll help the other person without enabling them.

There are two embedded challenges.  The first is understanding what they need.  How can you determine what someone needs in a general sense?  The answer may be that subjective experience leads to these decisions.  Of course, that’s not very repeatable.

The second challenge is in the form of what the other person can do for themselves.  Sometimes it takes pushing for people to enter into conflict or exercise in ways that are uncomfortable.  It’s not that people can’t do these things, it’s that they don’t naturally want to do these things, and as a result, they should be nudged or even pushed into doing what they can.  Unfortunately, this is generally uncomfortable for both parties.

Keen Why

Suicide, from the point of view of those left behind, is often a senseless act.  Though the person dying by suicide may have had their reasons and reasoning, this is often not available to the survivors.  The result is confusion on the part of survivors as they try to discover why their loved one could have possibly done such a thing.  Shneidman explains that there is never such a thing as a needless suicide.  In the mind of the suicide, there was a keen need that was withheld.

When assessing the risk of suicide, it’s important to consider what it is that people are missing in terms of their needs.  There are many answers to what people need that they don’t seem to get.  The key is understanding which of those things are the most important to the person, so that they can be given strategies to get what they need.

Four Factors

There are four psychodynamic factors that seem to have an impact on suicide:

  • Acute Perturbation – General upset
  • Heightened Inimicality – Hostility, particularly self-hostility
  • Sudden Cognitive Construction – A failure to recognize alternatives
  • Cessation – The idea that there will be an end to the pain, suffering, or struggle

The perturbation may be the intensification of the ambivalence towards death and suicide.  Specifically, it can be that the considerations for death that had been previously repressed may be coming more to the surface.  (See The Worm at the Core for how we suppress thoughts of death.)  Inimicality might also be described as thwarted or frustrated needs.


Intent is at the heart of whether something would be considered a suicide or not – and intent is hard to infer when the person isn’t available for questioning.  Intent ranges from the completely intended to predicable outcome and eventually arrives at completely unintended.  At the completely intended end, there are some indicators of that intent,  including a suicide note.  However, the low rate at which these notes are left behind (see The Suicidal Mind) makes it a poor indicator of intent.  Techniques like the psychological autopsy are retrospective reviews of artifacts and interviews with those whom the suicide interacted with and can often convey a sense of intent, but they too are difficult to get precision from, and their cost makes them prohibitive in most cases.

Some of the most difficult situations to infer intent from are those situations where the death appears to be an accident but may have been something different.  Consider the single-car auto accident where the car impacts a tree, an embankment, or hurtles off a cliff.  Who is to say whether the driver lost control, consciousness, or their will to live?  Undoubtedly, some deaths ruled as accidents are in fact suicides disguised as accidents.  In many of these cases, we’ll never know what the true cause is.

Some situations, like death through cancer or through freak acts of nature are safe from the possibility of intent because of their unpredictability.  It’s good that there need not be any serious consideration given to intent yet sorrowful for those who lost a loved one.

Relieve the Pain

There’s no singular approach to working with suicidal patients and friends that ensures they will disavow the idea of suicide.  It’s true that if someone really wants to die by suicide, they’ll eventually accomplish it.  However, conversely, if you’re able to reduce the pain just a little, you may be able to restore hope that their pain and problems will end and therefore life may be worth living.  As prediction machines, we’re quick as humans to project ourselves into the future when the small reductions in pain would continue until there’s no pain left.

Hope itself is an amazing thing, and Rick Snyder explains in The Psychology of Hope that it’s two pieces: waypower (knowing how) and willpower (willingness to try).  Often, the pain will drive a willingness to try, but without any sense for how to escape the current pain, they may be stuck and try nothing.  (See The Hope Circuit for more on learned helplessness.)


Suicide is, in essence, declaring bankruptcy on life.  There’s a sense that it will never be possible to be happy and therefore suicide is the only option left.  More than declaring bankruptcy in the present, the survivors can often interpret the suicide as in some way invalidating their memories of the person.  The memories of happiness and the joyful times shared seem as if they may be illusionary – as if, somehow, they weren’t enough to prevent the suicide.

This perspective is certainly understandable, but it simultaneously fails to recognize the cognitive constriction that face those who die by suicide.  It’s probably true that the people who die by suicide couldn’t recall the happy times that they had with the survivors.

Not Today

One of the bits of wisdom in 12-step programs is the decision to live life one day at a time.  You don’t have to make a decision to not suicide forever – it just has to be for today.  Related to this is that, for suicide, you don’t need to suicide today – it can be deferred.  Strangely, knowing that it’s a decision that never will expire as an option makes it less desirable.  (See Influence and Pre-Suasion for more on how this functions.)

Losing Your Mind or Death

What if you had to choose between losing your mind or death?  Which would you choose?  It’s an odd question, since both bring an end to consciousness, but it’s one that, strangely, suicidal people consider.  Some feel as if they’re slowly losing their mind.  They can feel as if crazy is creeping up on them, and they don’t know how long they’ll be able to hold out.  Then they’re left with an impossible choice.

Obviously, losing one’s mind doesn’t exactly work like this unless there’s an underlying physical cause, but at the same time, it’s a real fear that many face in fleeting moments or as a more serious consideration.  Maybe sometimes the solution to preventing a suicide is helping people understand that they’re not going crazy – no matter how much it may seem like that is the case.


One of the factors that is sociologically associated with lower suicide rates is marriage.  Consistently, those who are married have a lower risk for suicide.  Many hypotheses for this have been put forth, including the closeness of the relationship, the time-to-discovery for an attempt, and others.  One of the more interesting considerations is sense that the desire to protect one’s offspring and relatives may remain even if it’s been subdued in the protection of oneself.  It appears that people will avoid suicide if they know that others are depending on them.  This may be the source of the marital protective force that’s been seen in the data.

Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate, Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind, and Robert Axelrod in The Evolution of Cooperation all hint at an odd bit of genetic programming that allows us to sacrifice ourselves without violating Darwin’s evolution and survival of the fittest proposal.  The short version is that by saving our children, we’re ensuring the survival of our genes even if in doing so we ensure our own death.  This behavior extends to “like-groups” – presumably cousins and other relatives – who carry some percentage of genes that are the same as ours.  Obviously, genes can’t make you too willing to give your life, or there’d be no one to benefit from the altruistic act.

It seems like the complex web of protecting our genes may be able to be subverted for ourselves without subverting other aspects of the gene protection.  That may be at the heart of why people who are recovering for addiction are encouraged to serve others.  It may be the path back to restoring the protective forces for ourselves.


One of the factors that can drive people towards suicide as an option is the feeling of loneliness.  Loneliness the book makes the point that being alone and loneliness are different.  Loneliness is a feeling that can occur while you’re alone or while you’re in a room filled with people.  In fact, Sherry Turkle in Alone Together puts forth the idea that while we’re objectively less “alone” because of the connectivity that technology brings, we’re equally not connecting in ways that fulfill our needs – and therefore may feel more loneliness.

If you want to reduce the loneliness of someone – whether they’re considering suicide or not – the solution is simply to try to understand them, their perspective, and their situation.  When you feel like someone understands you, loneliness must take a back seat to the feelings of being understood.

Nothing Left to Lose

It’s a problem when someone with nothing left to lose, like a death row felon, is free.  The rules of morality and social convention have no hold over the person who no longer has anything to lose.  (See How Good People Make Tough Choices for more.)  Suicidal individuals no longer fear death and therefore must be approached cautiously.  (See The Worm at the Core for more about the fear of death.) There’s no telling what they might do.

Murder-Suicide or Suicide-Murder

Though murder-suicides are rare, they happen.  An interesting challenge comes from whether the person first considers murder and then acquiesces to suicide, or if they decide that they’re going to die by suicide and they need to take one or more people with them.  There’s obviously no one, simple answer.  However, it seems that though we call it murder-suicide because of the (required) order of events, perhaps it would be more accurate to describe it as suicide-murder if we consider the thinking process that happens.

If you’ve already decided on suicide, you can extract revenge on those who have tormented you through murder without concern for the consequences.  They’re not going to kill a dead person, nor are they going to imprison a corpse.


Joiner in Why People Die by Suicide frames it in terms of burdensomeness.  That is, people feel as if they’re a burden to others and they’d be better off dead.  Here, the word goes less far and describes feelings of worthlessness leading to a desire for suicide.  Worthless is the sense that you can’t generate value to others or humanity – or perhaps not enough to offset the costs that you bring to the world.  Feelings of worthlessness are often a natural consequence of failure.

For some, they’ve picked up some sense that the love and protection that they get from others is performance-based.  That is, that they will only receive love and support from others as long as they perform.  Because of messages they’ve received from their family of origin (mother, father, siblings, etc.) they’ve come to believe that their worth to others is in what they can do for them.  Without any sense of inherent worth, a failure generates feelings of worthlessness and the fear that they’ll never be loved.

The degree to which this is truth or simply perception isn’t relevant.  What’s important is that the individual has developed a perception that they can’t fail if they want to be loved, cared for, and supported.

On Their Terms

At some level, those who call to a suicide help line are asking for help, and while the saying goes, “beggars can’t be choosers,” it doesn’t apply here.  They want to get help – but only the help they want and in the way that they want it.  In a suicidal person’s constricted vision, they may not be able to accept the communication approach and pattern used by the person on the other end of the line.  As a result, the person answering the phone line may need to deviate a fair amount from the official protocol to first form a connection with the caller and from that start to understand then persuade them.  (This is consistent with Motivational Interviewing.)

This extends into a general sense that if they can’t get life on their terms, then they don’t want it on any terms.  In other words, if they don’t get what they want, they’re taking their ball and going home.  In this case, that means suicide.  It’s an extreme sense of feeling as if you’re not heard and valued as you are and as a result, you’re not longer willing – or able – to bend, adapt, and change for the chance to be heard.


One of the learnings from having a child is that sometimes the right answer is to let the child cry.  It sounds cruel and heartless, and it’s clearly not the only strategy that can be used.  Sometimes, it’s important for a parent to establish that the child is okay and safe.  It’s even important to demonstrate warmth, compassion, and caring, so that the child can establish a perspective that the world is helpful not harmful.  However, there are times when the right answer is to allow children to cry.

The experience of resolving a sense of pain ourselves is critical to our development.  We can’t avoid all pain because to do so robs of us our experience with resolving it.  Chicks need to escape their shell on their own and sea turtle babies need to find their way to the sea.  (See The Psychology of Recognizing and Rewarding Children.)  Without a sense of efficacy in self-soothing and resolving problems – some self-efficacy – it becomes impossible for someone to face an adversity and believe that they can overcome it themselves.

Calm the Panic

If someone can’t calm the panic that they feel in themselves about their situation and the resulting psychological pain, then the people around them must find ways to help them calm the panic.  While not totally self-reliant, the ability of others to bring forth, encourage, and enable the capacity to shut down the pain that is being felt is perhaps the most important thing that one human can do for another.

Pain itself is, as was said above, a necessary teacher.  However, as Nassim Taleb explains in Antifragile, we need the right kinds of challenges at the right times and in the right amounts to be able to grow.  When we teach people to self-soothe or calm the panic, we’re enabling them to regulate the amount of pain they feel from the challenges facing them so that they can bring them into a range that encourages growth rather than feeling oppressive and crushing.


One of the psychic pains that can drive suicide is the idea that you’re not “enough.”  That is, you’re not good enough to be loved and accepted as a human being.  While we all face the challenge of feeling like we’re enough at times, some of us are locked into a more persistent struggle.  The irony of the situation is that those people who are larger than life, who are more than enough by other people’s standards, are sometimes not enough in their own eyes.

Many people who are high performers became high performers because of a sense of drive.  They wanted to be more than they were.  While in the context of a growth mindset, this is good, it can be that the driver itself may cause a different kind of problem.  (See Carol Dweck’s work Mindset for more on a growth mindset and its benefits.)  What may be driving it isn’t necessarily a sense of acceptance of the current state and a striving for more but instead a longing to be something more than today so that they’re finally enough.

Some situations exacerbate these feelings and may even lead to suicidal ideation.  The overstrivers believe that that they’re not good enough – and can never be good enough – so the world is better off without them.  This isn’t true, but to them it feels true.

Somebody to be Loved By

There’s an innate need in people to be understood and even loved.  We long for acceptance in ways that convey that our existence matters.  We’re created as social beings having evolved with the primary advantage being our ability to have a theory of mind.  (See The Righteous Mind and Mindreading for more.)  When deprived of love, we find ourselves seeking it out in ways that may be self-destructive or ultimately harmful but that quench the immediate, burning need.

Sometimes, the suicidal individual can’t find a way to feel loved by others.  Whether they are or are not is immaterial.  Their capacity to accept the love that others are pouring into them is somehow blocked or thwarted.  To help a person who is considering suicide as an option, sometimes all that’s necessary is to be present and allow them to recognize that other people do care and that they love them.

Grass Must Not Be Greener

One of the challenges of the early Christian church was the attractiveness of heaven.  If today’s life is hard and the afterlife is all good, why not end the life part today and move on to the afterlife part immediately?  Unfortunately, more than a few people came to this realization, and suicide became a problem for the church, which was trying to increase its numbers.  (See A Handbook for the Study of Suicide.)  That’s why the church made suicide a sin.  By making suicide a sin, they could simultaneously maintain the psychic benefits of a glorious afterlife and remove suicide from the list of methods that could get you there.

Whenever we’re looking at ways to shape the decisions of others, the ultimate answer is easy.  If you can make the option you don’t want them to pick always undesirable, then few will pick it.  (It’s not all because some people have a rebellious spirit.)

Support Withdraw

A disproportionate number of suicides happen while therapists are on vacation.  This creates a struggle for therapists who need to find ways to recharge themselves and simultaneously don’t want to put their patients at greater risk.  There are solutions that therapists can take advantage of by having others that their patients can talk to in their absence.  However, the greater observation is the fact that the patients react to the perceived withdrawal of support.

It’s not that they believe that the therapist will be gone for good necessarily (though that is a possible thought).  It’s simply that they don’t know how to cope with today given the perceived withdrawal of support.  It’s like they’re literally leaning on the therapist when they suddenly disappear.

Interfering with Freedoms

On the opposite end of the spectrum are those situations where it’s believed to be necessary to interfere with the freedoms of suicidal individuals so that they are deprived of the chance to take their own lives.  There are, undoubtedly, situations where this is the right answer.  However, there are also times when depriving people of their liberties to save their lives may be precisely the wrong thing.

Suicide is driven, at least in part, through a feeling of helplessness and the involuntary loss of freedom encourages that feeling.  You necessarily reduce someone’s internal sense of personal agency when you restrict their freedom.  Thus, the short-term protection can come at a long-term cost.  You cannot hold someone indefinitely.  At some point, you’ll have to return them to their own freedom and sometimes at great peril.

So, it makes sense to involuntarily restrict someone’s freedom if there is no question about their intent to harm themselves, but when there is no clear indication, it may be a bad choice.

Patient Proactive

The ultimate goal of any therapeutic approach should be to empower the individual towards their own life separate from therapy.  It’s not appropriate or effective to keep patients in therapy indefinitely.  That means it’s necessary to continue to enable the patient to solve their own problems and, more specifically, learn to cope with life with progressively less external support.

Therefore, every patient interaction should be structured to enable them to solve their own problems rather than the therapist being seen as the expert to which the patient must always come.  (See A Way of Being and Motivational Interviewing for more.)

Separating Despair and Depression

Despair (hopelessness) is different from depression – and it’s more indicative of a situation that requires immediate care than depression.  While depression is a solid indicator for suicide, it’s less predictive than hopelessness, so it’s important to distinguish between depression and despair – with despair requiring more attention and faster intervention.  Depression, because of the diagnostic criteria, is a more long-term condition.  Despair (lack of hope) covers a person unexpectedly and profoundly.  It’s therefore difficult to detect with much advance warning – and it’s difficult for patients to muster defenses against.  It comes when people least expect it.

When encountering people who are in active despair, we must find ways to help them see that things will change for the better – even if it is difficult for them to see that at the moment.

Acceptance through Presence

Sometimes the things that need to be done are so simple and unremarkable that they’ve overlooked.  Often people believe that no one cares and that no one is listening.  Sometimes the intervention is just being present with people and listening.  By being present and listening you convey acceptance of them as a human being and an interest in who they are.  Sometimes this can help them recognize their own value and personal agency.

Often, the stories of those who have attempted or completed suicide are clear about their feelings that they’re not heard or even more explicit about aborting their plan should so much as a single person give them a hint that they’re not alone in the world – that someone cares and recognizes them as a human being.

Tread Water for Now

Being present is one way of treading water.  While you’re being present and listening, few people will actively attempt suicide.  Instead, they’ll be in the moment with you – and that may be all that’s necessary for the suicidal impulse to subside.

If you can point to the finality of a suicide as a solution and acknowledge that the option will always be available to them, they don’t have to choose it now.  For now, all they have to do is survive today.  They don’t have to solve their long-term happiness and the prevention of future pain.  They just need to make today livable.  (See Stumbling on Happiness for more about our lack of predictive powers for what will make us happy.)

No Control, Lots of Hope

Therapists have relatively little control over patients’ lives.  They may have powerful clinical prowess and amazing techniques, but these all pale in comparison to the other forces in a patients’ lives – the other 160+ hours of their week that they’re not with the therapist.  So, while it’s not possible for therapists to accept complete responsibility for the outcomes of a patient, that isn’t to say that they shouldn’t try to make the situation better.

Just because we don’t have control doesn’t mean that we can’t hope that our degree of influence is enough.  In many cases, it can be that the influence that the therapist has is sufficient to convert a tragedy into a triumph.  There’s no way to know which will be which.

The Liberty and Control Coin

Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind calls one of the foundations of morality the strive towards liberty and away from oppression.  Here, the word used is control – whether it is perceived as oppressive or not.  What we realize is that the more liberty someone has, the less control we have.  Conversely, the more control that we exert over someone else, the less liberty they have.  They’re inseparable because they are opposite sides of the same coin.  This creates challenges when trying to limit access to potentially lethal means for suicide and the need to ensure that the person retains their sense of liberty.

Responsibility and Control

One cannot be responsible for something they don’t control.  That’s a truism that extends beyond the bounds of suicide and is a point of challenge, as we’ve taught parents that they are responsible for their children while fully admitting that parent can’t control their children.  This is particularly true as children get older.

Because parents often feel responsible for their children even if they don’t have control of them, they struggle when children don’t do what the parents expect.  This is particularly true of parents whose children die by suicide.  They have no way of accepting their responsibility for the death of their child – and they shouldn’t.  We collectively need to acknowledge and share that, most of the time, parents are no more responsible for their children’s suicide than a therapist is responsible for the mental illness of a patient.

Both can try to create conditions for better mental health and feelings of love and support, but neither can be responsible.

Things Worse than Suicide

While suicide is a tragedy, we can’t forget that sometimes there are fates worse than death.  Some situations are so laden with pain and suffering that we shouldn’t be so hasty to eliminate suicide as an option.  We show compassion to our animals to euthanize them when they’re in too much pain from which they can’t recover, yet we often are unwilling to allow humans even peaceful deaths due to natural causes.  Instead, we attempt everything we can to extend life – even if the person whose life we’re saving would say it’s not worth living.  Sometimes the best – and most difficult – thing that we can do is to allow someone the grace to decide that suicide is the right answer.  That’s one of the reasons why understanding and responding to suicide is so hard.

There are no clean answers.  No quick fixes.  No magic bullets.  However, there is some wisdom in Suicide: Understanding and Responding.