I finally learned how to listen. Listen, not hear. With my hearing aids on, my hearing isn’t bad. But listening—that’s another story. Like others I know, I practiced what is called selective listening. I listened when I felt like it.
That changed soon after 9/11. I was looking for an organization to work at as a volunteer. I had known about a local crisis hotline for years and had thought vaguely that it might be rewarding to become a listener there—someday. Someday had arrived. I called and was informed that a class in effective listening was scheduled to begin in a few days. And that all prospective listeners had to take this class.
I was a little nervous when I arrived at the class. When I saw that most of the students were teenagers, that didn’t help my nerves any. But I reasoned that if they could learn how to listen I could too. We were told that we would learn how to listen to all types of calls: calls about suicide, abuse, addictions, relationships, depression, and just plain loneliness. We couldn’t give advice, but we could interact with the callers.
We used keywords to show the callers we cared. NAME. Some callers give their real names when we ask. Some give false names. Some prefer to remain anonymous. NODS. Verbal nods are phrases like “uh huh” to show the caller that we are listening. REFLECTION. Feeding back what the caller said, in slightly different language. It shows the caller that we understand. FEELINGS. “How does that make you feel?” Much maligned, but it works. REFERRALS. For counseling, shelters, medical assistance, etc.
SILENCE. When the caller is struggling for words or has stopped talking, sometimes it’s best to remain quiet. Our job was not to fill in embarrassing gaps in the conversation, but to listen to what the caller really wanted to say. QUESTIONS. If the caller is confused or talking in a disjointed fashion, asking questions can help him clarify his thinking and help us understand his problem. PLAN. A caller may be faced with a dilemma. Should I do A or B? Should I dump my boyfriend or keep him? We can help the caller organize her thoughts and come up with a solution.
We practiced our newly acquired skills by acting out role plays. The facilitators for the role plays were also mostly teenagers. It was difficult being told by an 18-year-old that I could use silence more effectively, but the fact that he knew what he was talking about helped me to accept his advice.
We graduated and were ready to talk to real callers. For our first few sessions on the lines we had mentors. I learned where the hotline was located (its location is confidential) and picked up the phone for my first call. It was really nervous time now. Somehow I got through that call and a dozen more, with the help of my young but dedicated mentors. I was ready to take calls on my own.
Since that time, I have listened to many callers talk about many topics. Sometimes all they want is an empathetic ear, which they can’t find from friends or family. They often say by the end of the call that they feel better.
Sometimes they need referrals. When a girl on the line opens by saying, “I’m fifteen and I’m a runaway,” that gets my attention. “Are you safe where you are now?” “I’m at a phone booth and I’m not going home.” My job isn’t to question why she’s running away, but to find a shelter for her.
Sometimes it’s necessary to give advice. When a teenager casually tells me that she’s just taken fifty headache tablets I tell her to hang up and call 911. She says she doesn’t want anybody to know what a stupid thing she did. I tell her again, more emphatically. She hangs up and, I hope, calls 911.
Listening gets difficult when a caller tells me he is in constant pain and nothing helps. I don’t want to listen because there is nothing I can do to help him. Yet, somehow, by the end of the call he feels a little better.
Occasionally, I am able to help a caller in an unexpected way. I helped one man find a job and he called several months later and told me he was making more money than he had ever made in his life.
I use my listening skills at home now. My wife may threaten to throw things at me when I ask her how she feels about something, but deep down I know she’s glad that I have learned how to be an effective listener. And so am I.