Types of difficult calls

The National Support Line often receives calls from people in difficult situations, some of whom are experiencing strong emotions.

These types of service users can include people who:

  • Have no one to talk to
  • Can’t leave their home
  • Have no food
  • Have no money for basic necessities
  • Have no nearby family or friends to support them
  • Are feeling suicidal
  • Have been the victims of scams
  • Don’t talk
  • Are angry and distressed
  • Are abusive towards operators

Angry and distressed callers

Clearly some people that call a support line may be very angry. This is very much understandable during challenging situations, but can feel a very threatening emotion on the phone, and it can also feel like it is personally directed at you, the operator.

Others calling may be very distressed or, if not distressed at the outset of the call, may become so during the conversation. This, of course, is entirely understandable, but it may feel very uncomfortable to be the operator and dealing with such a call.

It may be very tempting to deflect these emotions of anger and distress by telling the caller to “cheer up” or “calm down”, however, this will not work and it is more effective to remember the following rules:

  • Acknowledge the anger/distress
  • Allow them to talk about it

This listening, acknowledging and allowing the expression of emotion is more likely to defuse the situation.

If, however, you feel unable to deal with the call, or after hearing more details from the caller, you feel it would be better to pass them on to a more experienced operator then transfer that call to another operator or supervisor. You will need to explain to the caller that you are transferring them to a colleague who is better able to assist them.

It may of course, be appropriate to signpost to other specialist support.

Abusive callers

Occasionally someone may call up a helpline and be overtly insulting or abusive. More often, however, you may find the caller is being abusive or exploitative in a more subtle way. This could include calls of a sexual nature.

At first, you may not be sure what is happening. All your training and instincts will be telling you to attune to the caller, to be sympathetic and understanding and not to impose your own agenda.

However, you are not required to continue if the person is being indirectly or directly abusive.

Be ready to challenge perhaps tentatively at first and then if it continues, being a bit more direct. Do not raise your voice, but be prepared to interrupt firmly if necessary.

You may wish to say:

“We’re not here to take calls of this nature, is there anything else you’d like to talk about?”

If it continues, you may then warn the caller that you are about to end the call and be clear about what it is you do not like about their behaviour.

A standard hang-up line is…

“We’re not here to take calls of this nature. I’m going to put the phone down now.”

Then do so, or they may think you’re being ambivalent and giving mixed messages and the calls will continue.

Silent callers

Callers may not always speak immediately or at all, when on the telephone. Silent calls can be disconcerting to start with, but a caller does not necessarily need to speak to gain some benefit from the call. There may be many reasons for a silent call, it is important that it be considered genuine unless it is proven to be otherwise.

You may of course hear crying, breathing or background noise and this can make it harder to take the calls. However, you should give them the space and encouragement to talk if they wish.

A silence can often feel very uncomfortable for the operator, and usually feels longer for you than the caller. However, it may be giving them the space to think and decide what they’re going to say.

Some of the following phrases might be helpful to use in this context. Remember to leave silences of approximately 30 seconds between phrases:

  • “Sometimes it’s hard to know where to start”
  • “It sounds as though you’re finding it difficult to speak”
  • “It can be a bit frightening calling a helpline”
  • “I’m happy to wait for a bit until you’re ready”
  • “Since you’ve called…”
  • “I assume it’s something about…”
  • “All calls are confidential”
  • “No one is listening”
  • “Are you able to tell me your name?”
  • “May be if I ask you a few questions, you need only say ‘yes’ or ‘no’”
  • “Take your time”
  • “I’m still here”
  • “How are you feeling?”
  • “Sometimes it can help just to hear someone’s voice”

If the caller still makes no contact ask them to tap the receiver to let you know that they are there. If after a couple more minutes there is still no response, tell the caller that you are going to put the phone down, but inform them of the support line operating hours, and invite them to call back. Useful phrases that can be used in this instance are:

  • “Could you let me know you are still there by tapping the receiver”
  • “I’m aware that other callers are trying to get through”
  • “I’m going to put the phone down now – do call back another time”

Supporting distressed callers: CALMER

Call Operators should use the “CALMER” Framework they covered in their training:

  • C = Consider
  • A = Acknowledge
  • L = Listen
  • M = Manage
  • E = Enable
  • R = Resource

Whilst calls vary from person to person it does help to have a structure for the call. CALMER provides a way of following a structure, whilst staying open to what the caller wants. Thus, calls usually begin with a “getting to know you” or scene setting phase, where you are Considering what it is they want to talk about. It is important to continue by Acknowledging what is said as well as the fact that it can be difficult to launch straight into the subject itself, before a level of trust has been established through Listening. The Manage stage is how you show respect and promote dignity through the types of questions you use, the pace of the call (e.g. not interrupting or hurrying a caller) and the tone of your voice.

Enable refers to the way you explore options with someone and help move them on to thinking about the Resources they have or need – which you might be able to signpost them to. If you come in with options too early, before the caller has finished telling you about the problem and/or perhaps how they feel, you will get into a game of… “have you considered?”… “Yes, but…” which is frustrating for the caller, and threatens to undo a trusting relationship.

You will need to remember that many callers will simply need support and a listening ear, they will not be looking for solutions and trying to provide them will not be helpful. Indeed, some callers may be calling because problem solving is the only response they have received to date from those around them.

It is important to remember that this is not a linear model, you will probably find that you will end up setting the scene a bit, then getting a bit of the story, then setting the scene a bit more, then moving the caller on, then returning to the second stage and so on.

But, the better you set the scene, the more successful you will be at getting the story and similarly, the better you listen to the story, the more successful you will be at moving the caller on.

Every operator will have their own individual style. It is not about creating clones, but it is important to be aware of best practice and be tuned into your own limitations and shortcomings.