Oprah Magazine interviews a United Way 2-1-1 representative
I’ve logged about 10,000 hours on hotlines, but I still never know what to expect when the phone rings. My goal, however, is always the same: Make an authentic connection.
Each conversation is different. I introduce myself first and ask callers their name. Some immediate questions need to be answered—like “Have you hurt yourself already?”—to determine whether a situation is high risk and if we need to send help. Usually I ask open-ended questions: Can you share what you’re going through? What’s brought you to this decision? I paraphrase things the caller says, so she knows I’m hearing her and because it gives her clarity.
My goal is always the same: Make an authentic connection.
But there are instances where the first thing someone says is, “I’ve got a gun. I’m going to kill myself. What are you going to do to make me change my mind?”
That situation needs a different tactic. I might say, “It sounds like you’ve made up your mind, but I just picked up the phone. What about giving me a moment to hear what you’re going through?”
I just try to focus on taking care of the person while I have him on the line; my longest conversation was three and a half hours. Normally, we don’t hang up until a positive outcome, like a caller’s promise not to harm himself today, has been reached.
The holidays aren’t busier than any other time of year, but we do see spikes after high-profile suicides or a large crisis. When Hurricane Michael hit Florida in October, we had a 400 percent increase in calls.
Normally, we don’t hang up until a positive outcome, like a caller’s promise not to harm himself.
And I don’t spend every second of my day trying to keep someone in crisis alive. We have “active” callers who are lonely and just want to connect with another human being. We also hear from people looking for resources or food.
That’s how I came to the hotline. Twenty-five years ago, I was in a diving accident that broke my neck. I called for information about transportation, but the young woman who answered just knew I needed to talk. We had an hour-long conversation, and she helped me get back on my feet, so to speak. This work still fills my cup all the time.