It’s really, really good to talk

Mate. Don’t be embarrassed.

Over the years in this industry, I’ve sat through a lot of conference presentations. Some good, some outstanding, some tedious in the extreme. Some instantly forgettable, lots memorable, though not always for the right reasons (death by crane off-loader – those of you who were there will know what I mean).

Plenty have made me laugh, plenty more have had me transfixed; some – big softy that I am – have made me cry. Stewart Hill, whose head injury in Afghanistan made his own daughter unrecognisable to him, was one, Ben-Hunt-Davies talking about winning gold in the Sydney Olympics was another. Then there was Roger Black whose physical perfection turned me into a gibbering wreck (yes, I AM that shallow), Alastair Campbell who – regardless of political leanings – was the best presenter I’ve ever seen and Sir Clive Woodward, explaining how the combination of talent, technology and tenacity won England the Rugby World Cup in 2003.

All of these were fabulous, memorable presentations, but none of them had me in tears as much as the Friday morning of this year’s BMF Conference in Dubrovnik 10 days ago did. I have never yet sat through an episode of TV’s DIY SOS, fronted by this year’s opening conference speaker Nick Knowles, without crying. One of the things I always love about this industry is the way the stuff this industry makes and sells has the power to change people’s lives for the better. Knowles’ presentation highlighted that. The programme uses the power of good design and properly specified products to ensure that families stay together, have homes that they can develop in, or have some independence that they have thus far been denied through circumstances. All amazing, emotive stuff.

What also came out of Knowles’ presentation was the way that the community-working-together-for-someone-else spirit of the programme (and its spin-offs like Band of Builders) can also help people in other ways. The lump in my throat got bigger and bigger as Knowles described the builder who, knowing he struggled with crowds and anxiety, turned round three times and drove away from volunteering for a project, yet finally felt able to play his part, and Knowles talked of the benefit that being part of that initiative brought him.

If the tears were welling at the end of Knowles presentation, then they were in free-fall by the end of the Johnny Benjamin and Neil Laybourn slot. The latter’s description of spotting a young man sitting on the edge of Waterloo Bridge in a t-shirt in January, contemplating jumping off was haunting. To anyone who followed the #findingmike social media campaign and the subsequent documentary, the presentation was emotional and humbling.

The biggest killer of men between the age of 18 and 45 is suicide. It’s an astonishing, terrifying statistic. We take our mental health, and that of others for granted and we really shouldn’t.  We must learn to open up and to allow others to open up. Or not, if that’s what they need. Being there, letting people know that we are with them, is vital.

“Mate. Don’t be embarrassed (about your mental health issues).” And “Mate. It’ll be OK. You’ll get better”. Those were the two phrases among Laybourn’s many that cold January morning that Benjamin said got through to him. The two phrases that made him feel he wasn’t alone, that there was a way through the darkness and that there were people out there who could and would help him.

Such simple phrases, that you could tell came from the heart. Those phrases made the difference between Jonny Benjamin being a statistic and him being on a stage in Dubrovnik, telling his story to an audience that couldn’t count a single dry-eye amongst them.

Closing that morning’s sessions was another outstanding presentation. Never before have I listened to my recording of a session on the plane on the way home purely for the pleasure of hearing it all again. Michael Caulfield, sport psychologist and, clearly, the world’s nicest human being, had me doing that. As someone who is an armchair-sports fan, listening to him talking about the issues that sports people have with winning, failing, anxiety, performance, money worries, family issues had me wanting to laugh, cry and cheer all at the same time.

In sport, in life, in the building industry, in business: it’s never been more important to talk and to listen. To ourselves and those around us.


About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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