Some years ago, I volunteered for 12 months as a telephone counsellor for Lifeline. It was an extraordinary journey that altered my perception of life and humanity and mental illness.
And although it was demanding emotionally and mentally, it offered me a unique chance to assist individuals struggling with various challenges in their lives, from mental health concerns to relationship problems and much more. This remarkable experience imparted some incredibly valuable lessons to me, and I'd like to share the five most significant ones.
1. The true art of Listening
Having studied communication in the past I knew the techniques involved with active listening - reflecting, encouraging, paraphrasing and summarising, but in this situation I really applied this skill on a different level with help from the training I received.
In our daily lives, we can all find ourselves listening passively, waiting for our turn to speak and share our view. As a Lifeline counsellor, I discovered the enormous impact of truly hearing someone's story without interruptions or preconceived judgments, and without jumping in to offer suggestions or try and ‘fix’ things.
We were trained to fully immerse ourselves in the speaker's narrative, reflecting their sentiments, matching their pace and helping them feel truly heard, without focusing on our own automatic thoughts about the content they were offering.
It's not just about understanding the words; it's about sensing the emotions beneath them and staying with the person. This process can provide immense relief to a person experiencing distress, helping them feel less alone in their struggles.
2. Patience Is paramount
Working as a telephone counsellor demands patience, something I can really struggle with at times in other situations and other communications in my life and in other conversations.
In one four-hour shift, I generally encountered callers who are unable or unwilling to articulate their feelings and there was sometimes a lot of ‘space’ in the conversation. Some conversations were somewhat repetitive, others incredibly tense, and sometimes when callers shared particular content I would start to feel shocked or distressed within myself, although my role was not to make the conversation about me. Everything I heard had to be ok.
What is most important to remember in this situation is that your ‘job’ in that moment is to provide a safe space for the individual, no matter the pace or intensity or detail of their dialogue.
I learned that patience isn't just about waiting; it's about maintaining a calm energy, holding space for another's experience, and understanding that healing and progress take time.
3. Empathy Is Powerful
Empathy is different from sympathy — while sympathy involves feeling sorry for someone else's hardship, empathy is about understanding and identifying with their feelings.
Often, people reaching out to Lifeline don't need or want someone to immediately ‘fix’ things as such; they need someone who can empathize with their circumstances.
Offering empathy can mean the difference between aggravating a person's sense of isolation and providing a safe space. When people know they are not alone it can make all the difference.
4. Self-care Is Not Selfish
One of the most challenging aspects of volunteering at Lifeline was learning how to cope with the emotional toll it can take.
I quickly realised that in order to be effective in this role, I needed to prioritise my own self-care, building practical ways to look after myself and as we say in Positive Living Skills, ‘change my channel’, and still enjoy my own life without feeling guilty.
As the service is anonymous and confidential, you never know who you are talking to, or what happened to that person after the call ended, so without practical strategies for self-care, you could get lost in rumination.
Of course this lesson of self-care extends far beyond the realm of counselling. Whether you're a busy professional, a caregiver or a student, taking time to recharge and care for your well-being isn't selfish; it's necessary. Self-care can take many forms, from a walk in the park to meditation, or simply taking a moment to breathe. These small acts can maintain your mental health and increase your resilience.
5. Everyone Has a Story worth hearing
Finally, volunteering at Lifeline taught me that everyone has a story and every person is unique, with their own background, experiences, hardships and triumphs. Some stories really challenged my assumptions and my inner compass but ultimately they all broadened my perspective on life and people.
And I learned to keep these stories confidential. It would not have served me or any other person to share these stories. The confidentiality between the caller and me was a promise and a bond.
This experience really helped me to suspend my judgments and show kindness, as we can never fully know what someone else is going through. It’s a reminder of our shared humanity, and the struggles we all face.
In conclusion, my experience as a volunteer telephone counsellor for Lifeline offered more than an opportunity to serve my community; it provided me a profound education.
The mental health first aid or suicide assist training I attended provided me with practical skills I use to this day and share with others whenever I can. In fact, not long after completing my training situations came up within my personal and professional circles where I was able to put these skills into use and I was very grateful to know what to say to someone in crisis.
It also taught me to tap into more compassion, patience, empathy, self-care, and appreciation for the vast tapestry of human experience.
While it’s been years since I experienced this, it really enriched my relationships and broadened my perspective, and writing this today is helping me to remember and revisit these skills and lessons so I can continue to carry them forward into all aspects of my life and work.
The value of such an experience is truly immeasurable, and I would encourage anyone with the capacity or desire to volunteer in this way to consider it. There's a world of learning waiting for those who might decide to give it a go.
I would also encourage anyone who is struggling with something in their lives and who wants to speak to someone anonymously and confidentially to contact Lifeline. You can call on 13 11 14 or you can chat or even text. There are many sincere and caring people who want to listen.
Until next time,