Handling difficult and challenging calls outside of the helpline environment

Annika Howard
Red phone and cable

Helplines often act as an invisible safety net, catching people when they have nowhere else to turn as statutory services are cut. However, it’s not just helpline services that are receiving calls from people who feel that they are at crisis point. The people taking these calls must have the appropriate training, skills and support to respond whether they are working on a charity helpline, a corporate call centre or a contact centre.

Difficult calls

If your service receives difficult calls, such as suicide ideation, people who are talking about taking their own life it’s important to acknowledge those feelings. For some callers it will be their way of venting because they feel powerless and are struggling to express themselves effectively. Acknowledging how a caller is feeling and showing some empathy towards them is often enough to deescalate the situation, creating an opportunity to signpost them effectively to a more appropriate helpline or service.
For others, there is a real risk because they are overwhelmed with feelings of desperation and anxiety. Talk to the caller to explore how they are feeling and assess their intent.

Questions like:

  • ‘have you tried to take your own life before?’
  • ‘It’s really good that you have been so honest about your feelings today. We want to support you to keep yourself safe, do you feel like this is something you may act on?'

Staff confidence in handling calls

Staff who receive these types of calls need to feel that they have the skills in order to be able to properly respond and deal with them. Organisations can support their staff to develop these skills through training, debrief and practice sessions so they feel better equipped should they receive challenging and difficult calls. Clear strategies can be put in place to maintain call length, incorporating effective phrases to move the caller on or to signpost a more appropriate service or to check out the severity and nature of risk present. These will enable the call handler to take the appropriate next steps that meet the needs of the distressed caller.

The power of empathy

It’s not the role of the call handler to pass judgement on callers. There are no set rules as to how someone articulates or expresses themselves. If the person needs support that is outside the remit of your service or organisation acknowledge how they are feeling and signpost them to the most appropriate organisations that could provide help, advice or support. You can be clear about your remit and limitations yet still convey empathy.

Burn out

Regularly hearing about or responding to traumatic events can take its toll. It can manifest as gradual changes for example you might find yourself feeling angry and cynical, negative or emotionally numb. For call handlers and people working in caring professions, on helplines or the emergency services these responses may mean that you are suffering from compassion fatigue or vicarious trauma.

Being aware of and recognising the symptoms is critical to being able to do your job and look after your wellbeing and mental health. It will also enable you to manage calls better and within a good practice framework. People need time to practice self-care and have supportive structures in place to allow them to process what they are hearing. For example, organisations can put in place training, reflective debriefs, group supervision and reflective practices.

Helplines Partnership’s recommendations:

  • Staff are given training on how to respond to challenging calls.
  • Signpost callers to organisations that can offer support (this will free up your time and also give the caller the specialist or emotional support they need without limitations).
  • Support staff to look after their wellbeing and mental health after these types of calls by making room for debriefs and having best practice guidance in how to deal with difficult calls.

If you would like to talk to us about training for your organisation we can deliver on-site and bespoke training tailored to your needs please get in touch.

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