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The power of listening 

old fashioned phone receiver on curly wire

By Rosemary Hayes 

As you might expect from an author, when I was asked if I would like to contribute to this magazine, I had planned to write a piece about books and writing and, more specifically, about some of my experiences during the years I have been running creative writing courses for adults.  

I was going to write about some of challenges I’ve faced – from students who found it impossible to take even the most gentle criticism, for example, or students who dominated every discussion or, conversely, those too shy to say anything or who had signed up for the course for the wrong reasons, but I was also going to write of the intense satisfaction which comes form nurturing talent, building confidence and helping fledgling writers to take off and fly creatively.  I have found this a hugely varied and fulfilling experience. 

Hopefully, at some stage, I shall be able to continue the local face to face course I started pre-lockdown. All those who signed up for it were brimming with enthusiasm and it promised to develop into a joyous and productive experience for us all. 

BUT, I’m not going to write about this  – at least not now – because, having read that immensely brave and powerful piece by Justine Lister, it seemed more relevant to write about another, completely different, aspect of my life, one that I don’t often share with people. 

For the past twelve years, I have worked for the charity Samaritans, both as a listening volunteer and in other, wider capacities, and I’d just like to explain what Samaritans does – and, equally importantly – what it does not do. 

There is a misconception that people should only phone the Samaritans helpline if they are feeling suicidal.  This is absolutely not true. Samaritans are there for everyone who is troubled, in whatever way, and although we are trained to be alongside those who are desperate enough to want to take their own lives, we are also there for those who are feeling confused, depressed, scared or worried about a variety of issues. This may be their mental or physical health, for instance, relationships, financial or work worries. Anything, really, that is on their mind and affecting their life, be it a sudden crisis or ongoing concerns. 

People often assume that we will give them advice when they contact us but, again, this is not the case. If a caller has a specific problem that could be dealt with by a specific organization, and if that caller wishes it, we can ‘signpost’ them to the relevant organization, but we are primarily there at the end of the phone to listen.  

Listening – really listening – can be immensely powerful.

So often, friends and family members don’t do this. They are quick to offer advice, to relate their own experiences, to try and solve problems. But they don’t really listen. 

At Samaritans, we give time and space to our callers to express their deepest feelings and open up to us knowing that they do this in complete confidence. We can’t solve their problems for them but, through gentle, open questions and by picking up on what they are telling us and really listening, we can help them to try and explore their own options – and we never speak about ourselves; the focus is entirely on the caller. 

So much more is understood, now, about the fragility of our mental health, and of the importance of opening up about our feelings to others, and Samaritans offers callers an opportunity to do this. We are there for everyone, young and old, twenty four hours a day. 

During the pandemic, there have been so many people who have been cut adrift from their loved ones, experiencing loneliness and despair, perhaps for the first time, and there have also been people who have simply reached the end of their tether trying to deal with problems they’ve never experienced before. Samaritans has often been a lifeline in these circumstances. 

There are times when callers are reluctant to pick up the phone to call us but there are other ways of contacting Samaritans, via email and through other platforms, and these are all on our website, as is the free phone number. In the pre-lockdown world, people could also visit a local Samaritans centre and talk face to face to a volunteer; hopefully, it won’t be too long before that service is available once more. 

Like many volunteers, when we were allowed, I used to do a stint of rattling a collecting tin outside busy supermarkets or in town centres. Almost without exception, during those times, someone approached me to say, quietly, how they, or a friend or family member, had been helped by Samaritans. 

So, my message is, if you have something on your mind and you need to talk about it, please don’t hesitate to call us.

Call 116 123


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