7 Crucial Things You Should Know About Your Volunteer Supportive Listener.
By Jonathan Dubue
I was 18 when I had my first client. They told me about the abuse they experienced, their suicidal thoughts, and how desperate they felt calling in today. We talked for an hour and a half, mostly about their feelings, what made them call in, and where they plan on going next.
At the end of the call they thanked me and said: “I never knew this would actually help.”
I went on to see another, roughly, 327 clients since then, all of which echoed similar thoughts. On average, most of these folks did not know what to expect when talking to someone like me. Me, a volunteer listener exhaustively trained in supporting others. A person who wants to hear your story, and empower your future. A volunteer who spends long days and nights trying their best to make you safe.
I am one of thousands of Distress Line, Peer Support Centre, and other supportive listening volunteers. I’m the person you call, or see, when crisis rears its unwelcomed head. Many do not know about people like me, or, what to expect when reaching out to talk to us.
I’d like to clear that up for you.
Here are 7 things I would want you to know when reaching out to a peer counselling service.
1. Don’t worry, you’re safe here.
Right off the bat, I want you to know that everything you say is 100% confidential. My goal is to hear your story and help you with what you need. To do that, I don’t need to talk about you to anyone else outside of the service.
I want you to know that my primary concern is your safety. That means being safe from an abusive partner, from a group of individuals, or safe from yourself. I am going to ask you some questions about your safety, to make sure you’re in a good place to have this sort of conversation.
I want to make sure you’re comfortable talking to me, and me specifically. It’s okay to not feel ready for these conversations. You might need more time, or you might not know where to start. Whatever the case may be, I want to make this process easy for you.
Above all else, what I care most about is you. I want to do everything I can to make you feel welcomed, supported, and cared for while you’re going through this difficult time. If you can trust me to do these things, I promise I’ll do my best to make you feel safe.
2. I will never judge you.
I’ve talked to individuals who abused their partners, who attempted suicide after receiving a bad midterm grade, or who felt nothing after breaking up a long-term relationship. Between all these individuals, the one thing that remains constant is that I will not, under any circumstance, judge you for who you are.
You are a complex individual, with nuanced stories and concerns. I want to learn more about you, and judging you prevents me from doing any of that.
You have reasons that explain what caused you to act in certain ways and there is likely a much greater story behind what’s going on for you. My job is to hear you out. I want to know how you felt during that particular process, what thoughts came up when you felt that way, or what patterns you’ve been noticing.
3. I’m not here to tell you what to do.
If I was chosen as a volunteer for these services, it’s because I am a certain kind of person. I was chosen because I am empathetic, genuine, and have a deep interest in who you are. I want to learn more about your concerns, how you cope with them, or how you plan on moving forward. And I would bet, that I’m going to learn a lot about you in the time we have together.
However, I won’t ever know you as well as you know yourself.
I can’t, and won’t, give you advice. Not because I don’t care, or don’t have any ideas. Rather, I won’t give you advice because the only person that knows what’s best in your situation is you. You are the person that’s been there since the beginning. You know what works and what doesn’t work. You know who to talk to, and you certainly know who to avoid. You’ve lived through each of your experiences, making you the best expert in knowing your life.
So, I have this wonderful expert on all things about you sitting right in front of me. If you ask me for advice, I’m going to point you to the person who is the best at answering those questions. Take a guess who that may be.
You know what’s best for you. Not me. You.
4. I’m here to listen.
Throughout the next, however long this takes, my priority is to listen to you. Nothing else. I won’t try to nuance your story, or try to find hidden meanings where they don’t belong. You are telling me your story, and I want to give you the best opportunity to tell it.
The only time I’ll interject is if I need help clarifying some details. I’ll likely add perspective to your experience, ask you to tell me more about a certain event, or check in with how you’re feeling about today. Everything I do, or say, in this conversation will be to help you tell your story in the best way possible.
5. Reaching out to talk someone is hard. You should know that.
The simple fact that you picked up the phone, or walked into a help centre, means you have overcome one of the largest hurdles in getting better: reaching out for help.
Without a single doubt in my mind, this is one of the most difficult steps to take in the process of helping yourself. Having the courage to tell your intimate story with a stranger is challenging. To open yourself up to another individual and show your vulnerability is remarkable.
I want you to know that when you ask “can I talk to you?” I am already incredibly proud of what you’re capable of.
6. I’ve been there too, but not exactly where you are.
For me to say “I know what that feels like” or “Yeah, I totally understand where you’re coming from” is wrong. It’s disingenuous for me to believe that I know exactly how you feel about something, or know how you should react to a circumstance. I don’t really know what you’re going through, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t experienced in having things suck.
Although my experiences are vastly different than yours, I want you to know that I’ve felt bad before. I, at some point, was going through a rough time. I likely reached out for help, and I likely was better because of it.
I’m here today because I was once on the other end of this conversation. I won’t ever know what it’s like to be in your shoes, but we may have gone to the same shoe store.
I want you to know this so you understand: I’m just as much here for you, as someone was once here for me.
7. I’m not your solution.
If you come talk to me, you can believe I am going to do my best to help you. I will listen with intent, empathy, and non-judgement. I will try to empower, motivate, and build up your hope. I will work hard to ensure you leave this conversation feeling better than when you started it.
But it won’t be enough.
Fact of the matter is, you’re the only person in control of your decisions. You’re the one, who after hanging up the phone, or leaving the centre, will have to face whatever issues lie ahead. You’re the person that will directly deal with the consequences, or benefits or whatever strategy plan we talked about.
You’ll have to face these difficulties head on, but you won’t be alone.
I can hold your hand, but I cannot lead the way. I will cheer you on, but I cannot run the track. I will be in your corner, but you have to do the fighting.
I won’t be your solution, but we can try solving the problem together.
These are but 7 little things I want you to know about me. Of course, the list could go on, but if you take away one message from this post, remember this:
You’re not alone. I, among thousands of others, am here to listen.
*Thoughts expressed in this article are my own, and may not be indicative of every supportive listening agency.
Some resources around Edmonton:
Peer Support Centre (http://su.ualberta.ca/services/psc/)
Distress Line (http://edmonton.cmha.ca/programs_services/distress-line)
Momentum Counselling (http://www.momentumcounselling.org/)
About the Author:
Jonathan is a recent U of A (BSc. '15) grad, currently working as the Program Lead of the Peer Support Centre. He volunteered at the Edmonton Distress Line for 2 and a half years, while lending his passion for leadership and photography to the Orientation program for the past 5 years. As a prospective Counselling Psychology Master's Student (April '18), Jonathan hopes to continue supporting mental health initiatives as a continuing academic. Outside of his volunteering and professional portfolio, Jonathan is an avid fan of bow-ties, cycling, and Oxford commas.