I was a telephone volunteer at the Honolulu Suicide and Crisis Center for three years, from 1985 until 1988. At that time, not only did we take crisis calls but we also handled the Information and Referral Service, whose purpose was primarily to help people find the governmental and private institutional/charitable resources they needed. The function of the Information and Referral Service has since been taken over by ASK-2000.
In addition, at night we answered the phone for the Sex Abuse Treatment Service to quickly put victims of rape and other sexual abuse in touch with a SATC worker. We also answered the phone for Alcoholics Anonymous after their office closed and had a list of available AA volunteers to refer AA callers to. However AA calls were rare. For part of the time I was there, we also had a hotline to give out family planning information and another hotline for substance abuse.
In fact, we handled a large variety of calls, primarily on the I & R line. The largest category of callers was made up of people who were simply lonely and wanted someone to talk to.
The most basic distinction was between crisis callers, or any person who called only once or very few times, wanting quite specific help, and chronic callers, some of whom were mentally ill or in pretty much a state of chronic crisis, and some of which were just lonely.
Toward the end of my three-year period as a volunteer, my supervisor asked me if I could write up a few notes about the way I handled chronic callers. Once I started writing, this project quickly got out of hand and become an extended set of notes I called Chronix. Since then, these notes have been occasionally posted in the sci.psychology newsgroups and are now available as part of my archive of NLP articles, as well as in the form of an HTML file linked to this page.
The NLP training I had was immensely useful to me in what I did, and yet what I used was very seldom the sort of techniques that people think of as NLP. A lot of what was most useful were things I had learned in particular from Leslie Cameron Bandler, and I'm not sure that people who go through typical NLP trainings learn these things that well.
Some of this is explained in my Chronix notes. For one thing, I had learned to be very sensitive to what was really important to a particular caller, to where the energy was -- whether it was positive energy or negative. And also, I had learned how to step out of a situation and ask myself, "How does this make sense?" I think that in large part this was something I had learned from Richard Bandler, even though I never had him as a teacher and knew him only through his books.
One of the things that Leslie always stressed a lot was the importance of the questions a therapist asks, and the fact that simply asking a question can itself be a powerful intervention. I used that a lot in my work with callers.
When I've had a chance to observe other therapists, I notice that they also use questions as a tool. But mostly the kind of questions they ask are ones where they already know the "right" answer, and their question is an attempt to get the client to acknowledge this "correct" idea or "correct" point of view. These questions are just a way of pressuring the client. And example of this might be, "How would you feel if somebody did to you what you did to your friend?"
But the questions Leslie asked, and the ones I tried to use, were ones where I didn't know the answer in advance, where there wasn't a "correct" answer. When you ask the right question of this sort, you can see something happening in the client -- "inside." You can see that your question is making the subject pay attention to aspects of the situation that they hadn't noticed before. Essentially, you can see your client go into a "mini-trance," where a change takes place. Over the phone, of course, it's harder to notice this, but I am sensitive enough to voices that I could often detect it.
One example I can think of was a woman who had once been very happy, fun-loving, and then for various reasons was afflicted with very serious depression, which she found it hard to believe she would ever recover from. And I asked her, "When you do finally get through this depression, how will the you then be different from the you that you used to be before you had it?" There wasn't a correct answer to this, and I didn't know in advance that it would have an impact on her, but I expected that somehow it would help her realize that there would ultimately be value to the terrible experience she was going through. And in fact, it did have that effect.
Being a volunteer at the Crisis Center was certainly one of the smartest things I ever did in my life. I look back at that time now as one of the few periods in my life when I really seemed to be accomplishing something worthwhile.
Although there were a lot of times when being on the phones mostly amounted to listening to people who were so self-centered and so boring that they called us because we were the only people who would listen to them, there were also moments of extreme intensity. There were times when I knew that what I said might make the difference between whether someone lived or died. (Fortunately, I never had to deal with a call where the caller had already taken an overdose. My worst moment was probably the time when I answered the phone and the first thing the caller said was, "Do you think 80 demerol would be enough to kill me?" That and the time when a male caller started out by saying, "I don't know whether I'm going to kill my wife or kill my best friend. I have a rifle here with me right now.")
I learned to appreciate some of the skills I had in dealing with people. I learned, for one thing, to appreciate myself for having a very great skill in changing people's moods. There was an enormous satisfaction in remembering those times when I picked up the phone and the caller couldn't even talk because she was crying so badly, and an hour or an hour and a half later when I hung up, we were both laughing together.
And there were times when, after I hung up and while I was walking home through the dark Honolulu streets, I would think back in amazement at the way I had managed to find the key to handling a particular caller.