Crisis Hotline Listeners Help People

by Alan Cook

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 what I did.”

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.

Copyright ©2005 Alan L. Cook

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