I’ve decided not to kill myself after talking to you – is what a Lifeline caller told me.
I’ve made some truly crappy decisions in my life, and I’ve made some truly great ones. My decision to join Lifeline as a volunteer telephone counselor was one of the best!.
This purpose of this post is to give you a snapshot of my eight years as a Lifeline counselor. The experience not only profoundly shaped my understanding of human nature, but who I am today. I’ll start by telling you about a few memorable callers.
One was a university student who expressed deep concern about a friend. Callers often don’t present with the real problem, and this caller was no exception. As the call progressed I realized this intelligent, compassionate young man was telling me all about his friend’s troubles, and nothing about his own.
When I pointed this out, he did tell me about his troubles. He told me, in a very matter of fact way, about the physical and emotional abuse he was experiencing with his family, at home.
His matter of fact recounting of horrific abuse chilled my blood. I told him I was so sorry he was going through that. He verbally shrugged. Indifferent to his own suffering. “I’m used to it” he said.
I never ever want to hear people say they are used to being abused.
At the end of the call, he told me he’d planned to kill himself that night, but – after talking to me – he’d decided not to.
Years later, I still frequently think about that young man and hope he’s doing okay.
The second caller I’ll tell you about was an older man, a sometime regular caller to Lifeline. He was in a bad way. Deeply neurotic and suspicious, he was extremely challenging to talk to, frequently snapping, “What do you mean by that?!” in response to the mildest of questions.
At Lifeline, you quickly realize that the most difficult callers are the loneliest. However, we managed to establish a fragile rapport, and he was able to acknowledge that he was desperately lonely. That’s when I told him that many callers to Lifeline were desperately lonely. He was shocked.
I’ll never forget the pure relief in his voice at the simple realization that he was not alone in his loneliness.
Another memorable caller was a woman.
Initially I thought she was having an acute mental health episode. She was hysterical – crying, and all but screaming at me down the phone.
And although I struggled to understand her words, it was clear she was suffering terrible emotional pain.
I let her know that I could hear her pain, and was astounded by what happened. Within 20 minutes she was still distressed, but had transformed into a calm, sane, well-educated & intelligent woman.
The change was so fast and so dramatic, I actually felt quite disturbed at the power of simple, intangible, words to make such a difference, to so quickly alter another person’s state of mind.
For me these calls illustrate a critical therapeutic aspect of Lifeline.
98% of the time, as a phone counselor, there is nothing practical you can do to help a caller.
But I was awed, again and again, at the powerful therapeutic effect of bearing witness to people’s pain. The raw and beautiful gift of giving someone your undivided attention and truly hearing them.
I believe that in this moment of connection with an empathic fellow human being – the Lifeline caller feels validated as a person worthy of love and belonging. For a profoundly social species, loneliness is the most terrible feeling possible. I believe true connection helps dispel the painful illusion that we are alone in this world.
And I know, from times callers gave me feedback, that feelings of belonging and worthiness can persist long after the phone goes down.
I believe helping people realize that they are unconditionally worthy of love and belonging – helping them to realize that they are not alone – is the single most profoundly practical thing that a Lifeline counselor can do for a caller.
And you don’t need to be an official counselor to do this. (Although, for most of us, listening is a learned skill, a learned habit, in a culture where the default habit is the opposite of listening. Our cultural default is judging others and finding them lacking – typically thinking about what we’ll say next while others are talking.)
But listening habits are indeed habits. And habits can be learned and they can be changed. Active listening, as I learned at Lifeline, isn’t that hard to learn – when you know how. I’m proof.
And really listening, really hearing, is probably one of the most profoundly practical things that any of us can hope to do for any one and every one. It is the greatest gift. And it’s free.
P.S. If you are more interested in being persuasive rather than right, if you like the idea of helping people feel seen, I think it’s hard to go past Marshall Rosenberg’s book – the classic in the genre of active listening – Nonviolent Communication.
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Comment below: What do you think? How have other people profoundly helped you? How have you profoundly helped others? Often it’s the apparently small things that make the most impact. I’d love to know your opinion on this topic. Leave a reply below