You may be young or you may be old. You come from different backgrounds and different stages of life, but you all have one thing in common: an interest in people. Most of you are volunteers. And when the telephones ring you put your own psyches on the line in order to help others. You are the listeners who work on crisis hotlines.
Your callers also come in all ages and stages. Some call seeking information, but most call to talk—often about subjects they can’t broach to relatives and friends.
The information hunters need free or low-cost assistance with legal or medical problems. Or they may be looking for a counselor. Or a class for abusers because they have been ordered by a court to take such a class. You refer these people to organizations that can help them.
You answer a call and a girl’s first words are, “I’m fifteen and I’m a runaway.”
That gets your attention. “Are you safe where you are now?”
“I’m at a telephone booth and I’m not going home.”
It’s not your job to find out why she’s not going home. It’s your job to find a shelter for her, preferably one she can call collect and that will send a van to pick her up. After you say goodbye you may never find out what happened to her. But that comes with the territory.
With the callers who want to talk, your job is to listen, but not to give advice. You’ve taken a course in effective listening, with special emphasis on some of the problems you are likely to hear about: suicide, abuse, addictions, loss of loved ones, mental and physical disorders.
You have a checklist to help you get through the call. Name. Some callers give their real names. Some give false names. Some prefer to remain anonymous. Nods. Verbal nods are phrases like “uh huh” to show the caller that you are listening. Reflection. Feeding back what the caller said, in slightly different language. It shows the caller that you understand. Feelings. “How does that make you feel?” Much maligned, but it works.
Silence. When the caller is struggling for words or has stopped talking, sometimes it is best to remain quiet. Your job is not to fill in embarrassing gaps in the conversation, but to listen to what the caller really wants to say. Questions. If the caller is confused or talking in a disjointed fashion, asking questions can help her clarify her thinking and help you understand her problem. Plan. A caller may be faced with a dilemma. Should I do A or B? Should I dump my boyfriend or keep him? You can help the caller organize her thoughts and come up with a solution.
One way of classifying callers is to separate them into one-time (or occasional) callers and repeat callers. The one-time caller has a problem severe enough to motivate him to call a hotline for the first time. These are the calls you stick with as long as it takes for the caller to fully get the problem off his chest. They can go on for a couple of hours. Some are hard to listen to, some are sad, some are exasperating. But you don’t judge the call or the caller. You stay with the caller because that is your job.
The suicide calls are the hardest, especially a call from somebody who is holding a gun to his head. If you can persuade him to put down the gun and help him find a reason to live, you have done your job. You make sure he has a plan of action and ask him to call you the next day. It is a call you may never receive.
When the caller says, “I’ve just taken fifty headache tablets,” that demands immediate action. “Hang up and call 911,” you tell her.
“But I don’t want anybody to know how stupid I've been.”
You finally get her to promise to call 911, but will she really do it?
The repeat callers are handled differently, especially the ones who always tell the same story. You have to limit their calls or they will tie up the lines. Some of them can talk nonstop for hours. Their problems range from loneliness and depression to serious disabilities. Some will move forward and change their lives; others will remain the same or deteriorate. Sometimes their calls are so predictable that you could say their lines for them. This is when you have to suppress the urge to play Solitaire on your computer instead of listening.
There is one more category of caller: the inappropriate caller. These callers are the reason that hotlines keep their locations confidential and instruct listeners not to give personal information. The calls may be obscene or scary. Listeners are trained to hang up on inappropriate calls. But the callers may keep calling, using different names, telling different stories, disguising their voices.
It’s not easy being a listener on a hotline. Some calls stay with you for hours, even days afterward. But you continue to take them. Because you know you are helping people. Many callers are grateful. A caller may ask you for a date or profess his love for you. Or just say thank you. Then you know that you are increasing harmony in the world bit by bit.