Hanging Up

Over the last 2 years, I’ve worked as a volunteer with a crisis helpline. But after my last duty yesterday night, I’ve decided to hang up for good and tendered my ‘resignation’ as a volunteer worker today.

It was a very difficult decision to make. I hope it’s not a mistake. I decided to leave because I’m having a hard time fulfilling my monthly requirements since the beginning of this year as workload has increased due to a change in job scope and I’m travelling more. Plus I’m still doing insurance as a sideline while working on freelance writing and translations jobs as well. And blogging takes effort too. Add to that the volunteer commitments and I hardly have the time, energy or mental stamina to deal with anything else.

Sometimes after especially heavy sessions where I got a lot of calls, I’ll just be silent for the next few days and prefer not to have phone conversations with anybody. Is that a sign of burn-out?

The comfort of strangers. The callers don't know me, I don't know them, but we explored the darkest and most depressing realms of existence.

Even though I left, the lessons learnt during the intensive training sessions and talking to the callers will always stay with me. The helpline receives calls from people from all walks of life who are facing some very difficult issues. I’ve spoken to callers who were physically abused, suffering a bad break-up, being tormented by loansharks, cheated on, handicapped, very lonely, very ill, very poor, very old, very young, very frightened. Through all their worries and problems, I see a bit of myself in them. Sometimes during the course of our conversation, I realise solutions for something that has been bothering me.

The work is very rewarding but can be mentally draining at times because when you are engaged with someone at that level where they are sharing their most intense feelings and thoughts with you, you want to be 100% there for them. At times, I’d pick up a call and the first thing I hear is sobbing or crying, and their pain just grab me through the handset. And then comes the most difficult part of the whole call. Listening.

Juggling with so many things in my life, I’m very used to looking for solutions as quickly as possible. But for the helpline, our role is just to listen and refrain from offering solutions or advice. What we do is to really hear what the callers are saying, tele-walk with them, sharing different perspectives at looking at the crisis, to the point they reach their answers to the problems. Even if there’s no immediate solution, at least by talking to a stranger, the callers can calm down and regain hope. When a caller started out distressed and ended the call with a smile in their voice or even laughing at their situation, I give myself a pat on the back.

Normal Listening Vs Empathetic Listening

But what’s so difficult about listening? It is easy to listen when we can freely speak our mind in response to what we hear. That’s the normal way we listen. We are more interest in hearing what we have to say to that person than what that person is saying to us.

Empathetic listening requires one to listen without prejudice, forming assumptions, making a judgement and most importantly, not giving advice telling that person what to do. In normal listening, we hear the problems and the issues. In empathetic mode, we tune in to the emotions and thoughts that made the person say what they said, how they say it, their tone of voice, the choice of words, etc.

Responding with Empathy

If all I did was to sit there the whole time and just go “mm-hmm”, “ah-hah”, and “I see”, the callers would be better off talking to a pillow. That’s where responding with empathy comes in. What does that mean? Consider this scenario…

A friend said he needs to get away from things for a while and went on a holiday to Hong Kong alone.

A regular response and advise could be, “You must be enjoying yourself with all the great food and shopping. Have more fun to distract yourself and spend your pain away. Oh, you must so go to XXXXX and XXXXX and eat XXXXX.”

An empathetic response would be, “Sounds like you are under a lot of stress and something is weighing on your heart for you to want to get away from things and even vacationed alone. How are you feeling now? How about sharing with me what happened to you?”

Empathy mirrors and identifies the feelings and asks questions to find out more while our normal mode would be to jump to conclusions and start giving advice based on our own experience and understanding of something similar. We forget that the other person is not us. It is a very difficult skill to master and I wanted to continue honing it but alas, I had to end it.

After reflecting the caller’s feelings, the way forward is to ask more questions and give suggestions in the form of questions to help him or her get to an answer within. An example of a leading question for someone who has no friends and feels lonely could be, “Some people who also feel lonely find that picking up a hobby and making friends through it helps. What do you think? What would be an interesting hobby for you?”

Volunteerism Helps Others and Ourselves

There are many other skills that I picked up but listening and responding with empathy are the 2 key and most important lessons I’ve learnt. When I’m on the phone, I’ll switch on my empathy mode, but in daily life, the natural me takes over.

I feel really bad that I have to ‘sacrifice’ the volunteer work instead of other aspects in this ‘something’s gotta give’ situation. I would miss the friends I’ve made there because we went through so much during the intensive training phase and all the staff members who are ever so concerned for me and made me feel like being part of a bigger family. Being a volunteer is one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in my life. It added depth to my experience of the world, helped me appreciate the little things around me and find strength from living with problems to continue celebrating life.

As I recount the moments over the last 2 years, I’m tearing over the end of this relationship.

Maybe I should call the helpline and talk to someone about this pain…


6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Scot
    Aug 12, 2011 @ 04:20:15

    Volunteering is good for the heart and soul, and there are many ways to give to our communities. It sounds, however, like leaving the helpline is a good idea for you as it does require a rested and sharp mind to listen well to someone in crisis. Generally, people have no idea how much energy a helplines requires — so good decision. Another opportunity will come along for you.


    • Darren Ng
      Aug 12, 2011 @ 04:27:41

      hey scot… thanks for comforting me. i think all forms of volunteerism calls for us to put in our heart, soul, body and mind and i respect those who can continue to devote themselves for so long. hopefully i’ll get more settled and have time again to engage in community work in the future 🙂


  2. Weetz Seah
    Aug 12, 2011 @ 04:45:35

    Give yourself a pat on your back. You have given much back to society in so many ways! 🙂


  3. Catherine Ling
    Aug 12, 2011 @ 10:48:43

    Wow I never knew you did this, Darren. New respect. Pity you have to give it up, but at least you gave two years to it (and I can see you gained a lot in return too).

    Yes, emphatic listening can be very draining, especially on a continued basis. But it can make such a difference in someone’s life (actually life and death sometimes too!). Kudos for volunteering to do this wonderful thing! 🙂


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