THE SAMARITANS AND THE POWER OF LISTENING

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This week, because my flatmate suggested it, I am going to write about my experience of being a volunteer for the Samaritans, the UK’s telephone listening service.

Another reason why I wanted to write about this was because I wanted to remind myself of the power of listening. I had my first coaching supervision session a couple of weeks ago and I expressed how, as a new coach, I was concerned that my coaching would not work for my clients; that I would fail them somehow.

The supervisor reminded me that coach-client relationships don’t always work, but also that it is just as much the responsibility of the client to put the work into the programme as it is the coach.

She also reminded me of the power of listening, and how the coaching session may be the only time in a client’s life when they can just talk without interruption or judgement and this alone can be transformational.

The Samaritans is an incredible organisation, that will pick up the phone to anyone, it is completely confidential and they will listen to you about almost anything.

Essentially, the Samaritans is not an advice service. This would require some sort of professional qualification which most volunteers do not have. Instead, it is about ‘active listening’, a powerful skill that can be developed quickly and easily, especially if you are naturally that way inclined already. It is also about helping the caller to explore their thoughts and feelings that can help see their situation from a new point of view, so that they can identify areas for change.

To be a volunteer requires first an interview to assess if you have the right aptitude for the work and then active listening skills training once a week over the course of about 6 weeks. This provides the skills and a range of role-play scenarios in which to practice.

As active listening suggests, it is not sitting there passively just nodding and vocalising agreement or sympathy. It is about taking an analytically responsive position to what you are hearing, reading between the lines and gaining a deep understanding by asking questions that explores the caller’s issue. It is about applying empathy rather than sympathy, so the caller feels like you are with them in support rather than just watching from a distance.

My experience was incredibly rewarding. I loved hearing people’s stories and going on a journey with them to a better understanding of what was going on, no matter how unfamiliar to me it was. I was confronted with some scenarios that I had no idea existed, as well as those that challenged my nerve and required a level of patience, compassion and non-judgement that would not normally be granted to the caller by other people in society.

It gave me an incredibly deep and profound perspective of the world and reminded me of the hidden challenges that are going on privately in people’s lives. You really can’t assume anything about someone just from what they choose to present to you in public.

As much as the Samaritans will listen to anyone, there are exceptions, when it comes to abusive or sexually explicit language targeted at the volunteer. But even then, you have to let go of the caller gently and compassionately, remembering that the abuse is coming from a place of pain within the caller. It is also important to invite them to call back when they feel 'more in control’, in order to uphold the image of the organisation as 100% non-exclusive. Negative calls like this can be tough on the listener and the Samaritans have excellent processes for supporting you when these situations occur.

Of course, kids would sometimes phone up and conduct giggly prank calls, mocking the service. I found it interesting that again, we were encouraged not to reprimand, but simply to thank them for the call and invite them to call back if they were ever in a crisis. It may be this volunteer’s specific response that a prankster remembers later on in life when they need a non-judgmental person to talk to, and it may save their life.

Sometimes a caller would be ringing on 'someone else’s behalf’ to explore an issue. We could all assume that it was actually them that this was happening to, but they are too ashamed to say so. As a volunteer, you are encouraged not to challenge the caller on this and you may never know if this is actually the case. But what you can do at the end of the call is invite the caller to call back if they themselves are having an issue that they need to talk about, to remind them that they will not be judged, if it is the case that they feel ashamed to talk about themselves.

So, I would certainly recommend being a Samaritans volunteer if you have that inclination to help others emotionally. My experience has certainly contributed to my decision to become a Life Coach, because of the rewards that it brought and I can employ my active listening skills for the good of helping others.

If you have questions on being a Samaritan or Life Coaching in general, then why not get in touch for a chat! It would be a pleasure to talk, and I will listen. Really listen!

https://www.samaritans.org/

Take care for now.

Oliver

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