When a new coaching client arrives to see me, there is always a moment when the magic happens.
Yes, the client may spend a while settling, getting comfortable, calming their natural anxiety about seeking professional help. They may hesitate, get distracted, chat about anything other than what's bothering them. But sooner or later, they pause, take a deep breath, and begin to talk.
And then, I see the magic happening before my eyes. However hard a person's problem and however painful their distress, when they speak there is a sense of release and relief, of putting down a burden, of beginning to find a way through.
Of course it may take more resources - further guidance from me, perhaps - for someone to come to a clear perspective, an insight, a decision, a solution. But the minute someone has the courage to open up about their situation, there is something of a sea change.
Many studies - most recently a new survey from Samaritans - puts research flesh on the bones of my experience of this change. Although the survey shows people can find it hard to open up, physiologically as well as emotionally, talking helps - helps us lower our stress levels, helps us be more resilient, helps us face and fight life's challenges.
Why does it help? Humans are social animals; 'no man is an island', and 'it is not good for man to be alone'. We rely on others for support and when that support is absent, we cope less well. When we open up and confide, and when we see our confiding acknowledged and accepted, we feel encouraged in a way that not only calms our emotions but also helps us to think more clearly and respond more appropriately.
Talking gives us our own feeling of mastery over any specific problem. And that mastery in turn spreads to all areas of life - work, friendship, home life, health, finances - and above all our feelings about ourselves and our place in the world.
My expertise is around partnership, so the clients who talk to me will likely speak about love - in fact, Samaritans' survey reveals, after major life events such as the death of a loved one, relationships are the biggest single concern for people nowadays. So I may be listening to a woman who is single but desperately wants a child and is running out of time... to a couple who love each other dearly but keep arguing to the edge of madness... to a pensioner whose wife has died leaving him aching for company. My ability to listen - perhaps as much as the more specific professional expertise I offer - is the magic that these people are seeking.
And it doesn't take a professional like me to create the magic. I see - or rather hear - it happening all around me, every day, when anyone confides and anyone else is willing to listen. As I stand on the train to work and hear commuters chatting, when I sit next to a couple in a restaurant as they talk about their day, as I overhear conversations in the pub, I am constantly aware of what happens when someone opens up, someone else pays attention and - in a wonderful virtuous circle - the talker and the listener connect.
Of course, opening up isn't easy. It takes huge bravery to confide - and it's unsurprising, if sad, that the new Samaritans' survey reveals that nearly a third of us hesitate. We feel embarrassed, we worry that we'll be judged, we fear that we'll burden other people with our troubles. But that isn't my experience either professionally or personally; most listeners think it's a privilege if someone else confides - their only concern is how they can help.
Which brings me to Samaritans. I've been a fan of the organisation since the early Eighties when I picked up the phone to them when struggling with a problem at work - and I am constantly in awe of what they do. Quite simply, they listen - every hour of the day and night, every day of the year, by phone, email, text or face-to-face - to anyone who has any kind of concern.
Don't, by the way, think they're only there for those who are thinking of suicide - I wasn't suicidal when I rang them - for they listen to all kinds of problems, and they do so with dedicated care and attention, absolute acceptance and support. Which is precisely why Samaritans make a huge difference - often a life-changing difference - when they lend a listening ear.
So if you are reading this and struggling with a life challenge, if you want to talk to someone but aren't sure who, then even if you feel embarrassed, unsure, nervous, just follow the suggestion in the Samaritans campaign title 'Talk to Us'.
Because it's as simple as that. Talk to Samaritans and you will experience how the magic can happen.Suggest a correction