Behind the scenes with SOS Help’s trainee listeners
As a new volunteer helping SOS Help on the marketing side, I was offered the chance to participate
in a training programme for new listeners, to give me an idea of what’s involved. I jumped at the
chance. Here’s what I found out.
It’s a cool but sunny morning in April when we meet for the first time, in a building in central Paris.
There are seven trainees beginning the five-session training programme today, as well as four of us
from SOS Help and a trained counsellor, who will lead today’s session. There are people of different
genders, ages, countries and experiences but there is a shared sense of energy and enthusiasm for
the morning ahead.
Think you’re a good listener?
After the initial introductions, the focus of today’s session is how to listen. “That’s easy!” you might
think. We consider the people we know who are good listeners and why. Then we dive into a
discussion about a video in which we see a counsellor trying to help a young woman. We reflect on
what the counsellor does and what he achieves. We begin to realise that by careful listening, and
with limited but well-chosen interjections, he is able to help the woman begin to explore her own
feelings so that she might eventually be able to find a solution to her own problems: the aim of
listeners on the SOS Help phone line.
Our first experience as a listener
Then comes the practical work. The session ends with role plays, in which I also take part. We are
separated into threes, and take it in turns as a “caller”, “listener” and an “observer”. The caller and
listener sit back-to-back and imagine a call to the line, the “listener” attempting to reproduce the
skills we observed in the film. We find that it’s not as easy as the counsellor made it look! It’s difficult
to resist the urge to give advice and be positive, as you might do with a friend, and to instead steer
the person, who could also be in great emotional distress or even talking about suicide, to find their
own resolution. Afterwards, we reflect on the call with the help of the observer. “Did I talk too
much?” “Did I say enough?” “Did I help the caller?” An interesting experience that is essential for
trainees who want to see if listening is for them. And after this morning one trainee decides it isn’t.
Some online sessions focused on theory follow, and then the group meets again in person, two
months later. Now they are down to five trainees. The training programme is a real learning
experience. You find out a lot about listening and about yourself, and it is inevitable that some
people might decide that this kind of volunteering isn’t right for them. However, those that remain
are more enthusiastic than ever.
Over the intervening months, they have had opportunities to sit in silently as existing listeners take
real calls. They have observed how experienced volunteers handle calls and what they say, and have
started to get an idea of the wide range of calls they could receive. This face-to-face session is the
opportunity to share their experiences and learnings. It also ends with a role play. However, this
time, each trainee is partnered with an existing listener who invents a scenario. This is more
challenging than when the trainees worked together in the first session. The scenarios are more
realistic and the volunteers can attempt to convey the high levels of emotion that can be expressed
The final stages of the training
During the next stage of the training, after today’s session, the trainees will have the opportunity to
answer calls accompanied by an experienced listener, their first forays into listening but with the
reassuring support of an experienced volunteer to help them reflect on and learn from their first
experiences. During the final training session trainees will review what they have learned during their
first accompanied calls. “When will you know that we are ready to listen alone?” asks one of the
trainees. “Only you will know when you are ready to listen alone,” says the leader.
What did I learn?
It was enlightening to attend the training sessions. I have worked with the charity for a little while
now, but don’t normally have the opportunity to step into the world of its listeners; as you can
imagine, their work is highly confidential. The training helped me to understand how challenging
their role is but also how rewarding. To be in a position to maybe help someone make sense of a
complicated personal situation or simply offer a kind ear to someone: how many of us can say that
we spend our free time doing something so useful?
Thanks to Sarah Watson, SOS Help volunteer, for writing this post!