A Listening Ear

11 October 2022
Clare Waller, Commercial and Corporate Partner, has been instrumental in Spencer West being the first ever law firm to join the Institute for Collaborative Working. Whilst working collaboratively is a very important skill in her job as a commercial and corporate solicitor, Clare has to take a very different approach in her volunteering role outside of work.  I interviewed Clare about her work as a Samaritans Volunteer.   
Clare,  how easy is it to listen to people in distress? 

It’s difficult.  As volunteers with the Samaritans, we can’t be substitutes for relationships nor replace family or friends. We’re not there to befriend and we don’t give advice on specific problems or offer practical help. We have to be clear about what we can, and cannot, offer callers and make it clear that we’re there to talk about what’s troubling them, but not for a general chat.  We let the callers make their own decisions. We’re there purely to listen.

Callers don’t have to tell us their name, but they can if they want to. Talking to someone a caller doesn’t know can sometimes feel easier than talking to someone they do know, because they don’t have to worry about the volunteer’s feelings or what they might think about the caller.

That must be difficult to do in practice. 

Yes, it’s hard just to listen, albeit active listening, particularly for me with my career as a lawyer, but that’s the essence of what we do, and it’s strictly adhered to.  We don’t “self-disclose”, as it’s called, which means we won’t talk about ourselves, even if the caller asks, “Has that ever happened to you?” We’re there to give the caller time, space and our full attention. They don’t need to ask how we are, or give us time in return.  It’s about them.  Someone once asked me if I liked the music he was playing in the background, and I turned the conversation around to focus on him to avoid answering that and give him the time he needed.

We are trained to talk through difficult issues, by being able to ask difficult questions and explore issues no one else may have felt able to talk with the caller about.  We explore options, not by telling the person what to do, but letting them explore different steps they could take and how they feel about these. 

For someone who clearly values relationships, that must sometimes be challenging. 

It’s a very specialised skill. You train hard to get it right. There are ten weeks of training, plus homework and when I undertook training shortly after COVID, the training was online using Zoom, although it’s now back to in-person training as far as possible. There were eight people in our training cohort when we started, a complete cross section of people from all kinds of backgrounds; men and women of all ages. They included an ex-police officer, a teacher, an ex-soldier, and a social worker. Two potential volunteers had dropped out before we even started the training and unfortunately a couple more dropped out after training when we moved on to the next steps.  We volunteers are ordinary people. We’re trained to listen to callers and help them to talk through their worries, troubles and concerns. Volunteers have the experience of talking to all kinds of people, each of them different.  We’re there for callers to talk to about how they feel. We freely give callers our time and attention but it’s not for everyone and some people do struggle once they understand what’s involved.   

Training involved watching videos, discussing them with the trainers and co-volunteers and then doing role plays. The scenarios got more and more challenging as you moved through the training. Once training is finished you do mentored practice with an experienced volunteer, and at first you just listen in to calls that your mentor takes and discuss them afterwards. Then you go through a stage where your mentor is listening in to the calls you take. I came out of my mentoring period in August last year and then became a probationer working together with a more experienced volunteer in a pair.  I achieved “full-volunteer” status earlier this year.  

What’s it like to actually do the work? 

It was a bit different for some centres during COVID, but generally there’s a requirement to go physically into the call centre. I find this helpful because I can leave the problems in the centre when I finish my shift. I “take my Samaritans hat off.” Generally, I find I don’t mull over it afterwards but if something is playing on my mind, I’ll speak to my co-volunteer or the Leader – this can be the day after sometimes but the support is great. 

I do four shifts a month, of three hours each. One of those has to be an out-of-hours shift, which means between 11pm and 8am. I tend to pick up the night shifts because that suits me better. At those times, I can receive calls from insomniacs, elderly, lonely people, or people who are a mixture of all three. Sometimes, I may get someone who has come back from the pub, and they are more able to talk about whatever it is that’s troubling them because they’ve had a drink. 

Many branches run “outreach” programs supporting sections of the community.  We reach out into communities by working with schools, colleges and universities, workplaces, health services, welfare services, homeless shelters, prisons and other charities; or being at railway stations, local social venues or community events and music festivals.

A lot of prisons have dedicated freephone Samaritan phone lines in the cells and there are generally phones on the landings in the common areas. Some prisoners phone the Samaritans because they’ve run out of their phone call allowance, and it’s extra talking time for them, especially if they’re lonely. COVID was terrible for them as many were locked up for 23 hours a day.  They also phone us for numerous other reasons on matters that are troubling them.  We treat them the same as we would any other caller to the helpline.

In addition, support is provided to many prisons by way of the Listener Scheme.  If a prison doesn’t have a Listener scheme, prisoners can ask for face-to-face support from the local Samaritans branch, in addition to the telephone facility. If we can, we’ll visit the prison and talk with the prisoner in a private area.

Listeners are prisoners who are selected, trained and supported by volunteers visiting from a nearby Samaritans branch, so that they can provide the same kind of support for their fellow prisoners as given in all Samaritans’ helpline services. It’s quite a process, involving a lot of security checks for the volunteers to gain entry to the prison, and the environment can be quite daunting the first couple of times you experience it.  For prisoners in prison for the first time, particularly younger people, it can be especially difficult, because they’ve lost contact with their friends, they’re in a very regimented environment and the support offered by the Listeners can be invaluable. 

What kinds of issues tend to come up most? 

There’s no typical person who calls the Samaritans’ helpline. There’s no typical problem that people talk to us about.

People talk to us about job stresses, being out of work, money troubles, family struggles, relationship issues, trying to measure up, feeling alone, feeling worthless, feeling sad or angry all the time, getting into trouble, being abused, feeling suicidal, needing to drink/ take drugs to get through the day. We get quite a few callers with relationship issues where people have had a relationship break down or are coming out of a relationship worrying that they will never find another relationship. Perhaps they can’t talk to their partner about a work issue. Maybe they don’t want to worry the partner, or they work different hours and don’t see one another. They’re worried about the partner’s potential reaction. 

It doesn’t matter what kind of problem callers have or how big or small it may seem compared to the problems other people have. What matters to me as a Samaritan is how the caller’s life is making them feel.

Sometimes people get to a point where they feel they can’t cope, where it all feels too much to handle. It’s worse if they feel they can’t talk to anyone about what’s weighing on their mind.

That’s where the Samaritans come in. Callers can talk to us about anything that’s troubling them. If something is hurting or upsetting the caller, they can talk to us about it.

We have an awful lot of calls relating to mental health issues, self-harming, substance misuse, including alcohol. People get bounced between hospital, social care and the police station. It’s often a cycle. They phone the Samaritans, and you can only help them so far, by listening and showing empathy, and to be honest, you sometimes feel helpless. Sometimes the call is just an outpouring of how they’ve been treated, and again you feel helpless because you can’t change the past. 

A surprising thing, perhaps, is that to date I’ve had only one caller who talked mainly about debt problems, though this may have been an ingredient in other calls. 

Do you get supervision where you can talk about feeling helpless? 

When you go on shift there’s always a Leader who is on the end of the phone. They are then available via phone all the way through your shift and you can call them at any time if you need support or advice. We also support our co-volunteers. At the end of the shift you phone the Leader and debrief. All notes you take are shredded to maintain confidentiality. 

I had a call where a lady said she had taken an overdose and she just wanted to talk to me whilst things took their natural course.  I asked her whether she wanted me to call the emergency services, and told her that she would have to provide me with certain information so I could call them, but she didn’t want to disclose that. You have to keep asking in a case like that. If the caller doesn’t want to provide you with the information or doesn’t want the emergency services called, there’s nothing you can do as you have to respect the caller’s decision.  You support them through the situation. In addition, with the system we have there’s no way of knowing who people are, or where they are based. 

Are there particular groups in society who are more likely to call the Samaritans? 

Younger people is one but this may be because young people are more likely to be open about any mental health issues they may be experiencing. We do have some volunteers in their 20s, and they really get what’s going on for young people but it can be hard for those of us who are not in our 20s. Sometimes young people will say, “I’m really depressed”, and I ask them what they mean by that, and they can’t say, and it makes it very difficult to explore. They appear to use the word almost as a label and you have to be patient and drill down using open questions and employing the skills learnt through training to find out what they mean and how they are feeling. 

One area we really need to focus on in our society is middle aged men. They sometimes have a reluctance to share with others and be open about their feelings. They have male bonding and banter, but these can be ways of avoiding sharing anything that’s really significant with each other, particularly in the workplace. Flexible working adds to the problem because managers don’t interact with workers in the way they once did making problems harder to identify.  Samaritans may be one of the only outlets for this group as we won’t judge. We take callers as they are, and respect whatever feelings or thoughts they may be having. 

Thank you so much Clare. Congratulations on doing this difficult role with such dedication. 

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Ian McDowell
ESG Director
Ian McDowell is the Community Engagement Director at Spencer West.
Clare Waller
Partner - Commercial & Corporate
Clare Waller is a Partner Solicitor at Spencer West. She specialises in Corporate and commercial including technology, cyber & defence, provision and support of commercial and service contracts, IP transfer agreements, Licensing, Support, Consultancy, Systems Integration and SaaS Agreements, Software Development.