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The Art of Communication

Barry Greenwald, Ph.D.

Communication usually involves the sharing of information between two or more people. We talk or write in order to tell something to someone else. In essence, we communicate as a means of letting another person know what we think or feel and in so doing, we extend the boundaries of our own private experience to include others.

How much we convey--the depth, the clarity, the intensity, the complexity--is dependent on many variables. We communicate differently to parents, friends, teachers, casual acquaintances, and significant others. There are some things we would tell friends and never tell parents. We talk to strangers differently than we talk to people we know well. How much we disclose is dependent upon the relationship we enjoy with the person with whom we are talking.

The following is an attempt to look at some of the variables that effect communication. Hotline volunteers communicate differently because of the role they have. While many of these variables affect all communications, there are special nuances and variations that come with the role of the paraprofessional hotline volunteer.

The Relationship:

The person who calls a hotline usually has no idea of who will pick up the phone. The same uncertainly exists for the liner who never knows who or what will come across the phone lines. Thus, both caller and liner start at almost the same place. There are a few important differences to keep in mind.

When someone decides to call the line, s/he does so with some a priori expectation about the person who they will reach. They do not know who they will reach, but it is likely that they presume they are going to talk with someone who has expertise in helping others. Thus, from the very moment the call begins, you are vested with some authority and expertise. You are the "helper" and the caller is the one "seeking help." Unfortunately, in our society, that often means a "one-up/one-down" relationship. You are seen as more knowing and more powerful; you are the one who is presumed to have the answers.

It is important to keep in mind that callers always have some assumptions about you and once having projected these assumptions, they are also likely to have some feelings about them. They're not always positive, although often they are. The most familiar model is that of the doctor. Almost everyone in our society has, at one time or another, sought the aid of the expert physician and that model is the one they use in thinking about you. It's not the right model, but they are likely to expect that you will provide help in the same way as the doctors they have seen in the past. Essentially, they will tell you their problems and expect you to diagnose and provide the prescription for cure. Not all callers behave this way but many do. Some variation on this theme is the rule rather than the exception. Keeping this possibility in mind when you talk to callers will help you understand why the caller communicates as s/he does.

In order for the work of the call to progress, a different kind of relationship needs to be established. If the caller's initial assumptions about you as the helper are not gently corrected, the communication will bog down. Frustration and anger will emerge because you are not fulfilling the role that has been assigned to you. Listening for and addressing the caller's spoken and unspoken expectations will do a lot to help clarify those expectations and open the door to revising them.

Your task is to build a collaborative partnership in which there is expertise and wisdom on both sides of the line. The task of solving problems is not yours alone but is more accurately a shared responsibility with the caller. Thus, you are not there to take over responsibility for the caller's life and difficulties and you are not a prescriber of solutions and remedies. You are there to work together to see what is and is not possible. Many of our callers dislike this model because they want to "dump" their problems and either run from them or have you do all the work. Helping the caller to see another route takes patience, gentleness, understanding, and the ability to take some heat. Just because a caller tells you "you're not being helpful" doesn't mean its so. It may mean that you are not behaving in the way the caller expects and s/he doesn't like it.

Forming a relationship means creating a connection. The deeper this connection becomes, the more the caller is usually willing to communicate.


If someone senses you are interested in what they are saying, they are inclined to tell you more. Your own natural curiosity about people will take you a long way on this dimension. It doesn't take enormous effort to convey interest and there are techniques that can be helpful in communicating that you are following and involved in what the caller says. On the other hand, most of our callers are very shrewd about disengenuiness. They can tell if you're faking it or whether your really interested in what they are saying. To demonstrate interest takes concentration, a kind of single-minded listening that does not bridge distraction. That is hard work particularly if the caller's tale is one you've heard over and over again or if the caller is just not interesting to begin with. It happens.

When you are on the phone with a caller, s/he deserves your entire attention and concentration. You are literally tracking the caller's every word in order to understand their feelings and circumstances. You are listening to what is said and what is left unsaid.

Demonstrating your interest involves your responding to the caller. Sometimes, it requires little more than a verbal nod, e.g., "uh-huh," "go on," "what happened next?" It's a signal that although you've been very quiet, you've been hard at work listening and want to know more. Asking a caller to clarify something that s/he has said or to explain something or tell you about something in greater detail conveys your interest.

The ability to reflect both the spoken and unspoken feeling content of what is being said is also a clear indication that you're involved and that you have accurately heard the message in all its complexity. Using this type of response is not as easy as it may seem. Some callers are reassured by your understanding of their feelings and others are put-off. This latter type of caller may be frightened that you understand or see too much and feel that they are transparent. They do not want you to know more than what they have said and feel that you have some kind of extra sensory skill that exposes them before they are ready for that kind of exposure. It takes time to master techniques and even more time to learn the seemingly unteachable art of "timing."

Empathic Understanding

This is the ability to understand from inside the perspective of the other person. This is being able to "walk a mile in someone else's shoes." It is different from objectivity. It is being able to form a transitory identification with someone else so that your experience mirrors as accurately as possible the total experience of another person. There are several key features to this type of understanding.

It is not a permanent merger. Rather, it is rapid and transitory and requires the ability to return to your self now armed with the additional understanding that came from the empathic merger. Equally important is the ability to hold this understanding without imposing your own values or judgements about the quality of the experience or feelings.

Communication is enhanced by your ability to understand the feelings, the circumstances, and most important of all, the significance and importance of the event as if you were the other person. Ideally, you simultaneously hold your own perspective and the perspective of the other person.

The real test, however, is in being able to communicate in words this understanding. In so doing, you let the caller know that you have entered his/her frame of reference. A bridge is created, a connection established.

Empathic understanding is difficult, draining work. To be able to set yourself aside with all your mores and values, takes effort and a great deal of practice. Your own strong feelings and beliefs can intrude upon the process and either limit your success or make this type of understanding impossible. It requires knowing yourself well, particularly your areas of emotional vulnerability. Areas of conflict, strong feelings about a subject, opinions in which you are intensely invested can all provide obstacles to entering another's frame of reference.


Trust is probably the most difficult quality of a relationship to define. In general, we know when it is present and we know when it is absent. In many ways, it feels intuitive.

Trust is not always a global phenomenon. In our relationships some degree of trust is usually present. We are aware, however, that we vest different people with varying degrees of trust. There are some things we tell some people and would not consider telling others. That discrimination represents a different degree of trust. Why we trust one person and not another and with what information about ourselves is a difficult question to answer. It requires a careful analysis of the qualities of the person and an awareness of the history of the relationship.

Instant trust is rare and not always real. Usually, the establishment of trust requires a series of conscious or unconscious tests that a person passes before we allow them to know the more private parts of ourselves. If you tell someone something in confidence and discover that your story has been indiscriminantly shared with others, one of the basic tenets of a trusting relationship has been violated. You may never share intimate parts of yourself with that person again. Thus, the ability to hold in confidence something that you have shared is a basic building block to a trusting relationship.

Callers to a hotline may or may not understand the confidential nature of the relationship you offer. Even though you and the caller retain a high degree of anonymity, the caller may worry about who knows the information that they tell you. Often, it is useful and necessary to describe the confidential nature of the relationship so that the caller is reassured that their private lives are not going to become a part of the public domain.

Trust is also based on understanding and your ability to appreciate the importance of what is being told to you from the teller's point of view. Thus, the empathic understanding discussed earlier is also a very important component in the establishment of a trusting relationship. It almost goes without saying that the higher the degree of trust the greater the ease of communication.

The very essence of our work as a hotline volunteer takes us into the private lives of those who call us for assistance. While natural curiosity fuels all of us, it is a disciplined curiosity designed to afford us a means for understanding what another person's life and circumstances are like. We are not asking questions or acquiring information to satisfy our own personal agendas. Our inquiries are not designed to stimulate our fantasy life or for our own personal kicks. The liner's curiosity is professionally based. His or her need to know is to promote the task at hand--helping the other person. Thus, it is a dispassionate curiosity and is in the service of the caller's agenda--not the personal agenda of the volunteer.

Patience is another important dimension. People can neither be rushed nor forced to reveal themselves. As a liner, you may sense there is more to the story than you are hearing but the caller is not yet ready to reveal all the details. Pushing the caller (although there may be times when urging may be necessary) can infringe on the building of the needed trust. Allowing the caller to move at his/her rate of speed--even when that feels frustrating--allows the caller to feel in control and unthreatened. Being able to "wait it out" and respecting the caller's timetable will often enhance the degree of trust and, in the long run, allow you to collect the needed information.


Being able to speak the caller's language goes a long way to enhance the communication process. If you have ever had someone try to explain something to you and they use a "professional language" that is foreign to you, you have a sense of how important this is. Physicians, used to speaking "medicalese" often confuse their patients because they are utterly incapable of translating their scientific expertise into language that the non-medical person can understand. They may do a lot of talking but they communicate little to the medically uninitiated.

Callers come from all walks of life and have varying experiences and all levels of education. These factors influence their ability to communicate. They may use slang, phrases that are culturally determined, swear, or have very few words to describe what is clearly a very complicated set of feelings and situations. The highly articulate person whose vocabulary is rich and varied often creates a picture that is clear and easy to comprehend. Others may have only a limited vocabulary and their descriptions end up creating a sense of vagueness and incompleteness. Part of our task is to stay within the language confines that our caller uses.

Your own vocabulary and its richness is also important. This is particularly true with regard to the words you have for the broad spectrum of feelings that the human species experiences. Take for example ANGER: Anger, frustration, irritation, insulted, irked, hostile, furious, rageful, ticked-off, annoyed, bothered, hateful,

And that doesn't exhaust the list. Each is slightly different. Each carries a slightly different nuance of meaning denotatively and connatively. Each must be understood in the context of the caller's frame of reference and life experience.

Sometimes, just helping a caller name the feeling that s/he has will be helpful. It gives the caller a handle, a way of tagging their experience and thus makes it more manageable. Sometimes being able to split a complicated feeling statement into its component parts also provides help to a caller. "It sounds as if you are not only angry but that you are hurt as well..."

It is likely that you will want to expand your own vocabulary for feeling words so that your reflections to the caller become more precise and accurate. Your ability to pinpoint the nature of the caller's experience will enhance the communication flow. It provides feedback not only that you are working to understand but that you do understand.

Some callers use "street talk" exclusively. Their conversation is peppered with profanity and they use four-letter words as if nothing beyond one syllable has been invented. Sometimes, its designed to shock and put you off. Often, its just the way they talk. You are not required to swear like a sailor if that is not comfortable for you in order to develop rapport. Some people can do that; others prefer not to and are simply uncomfortable and feel disengenuine if they do. You will need to find a style that is comfortable for you which allows you to feel authentic and genuine. Faking doesn't work. It is transparent and often the caller feels as if s/he is being talked down to.

Profanity carries an enormous emotional charge. These are not meaningless words. You may have to stretch yourself in order to develop a higher degree of comfort in situations in which caller's use them. A person's vocabulary carries enormous information that you need. It indicates intelligence, background, and culture just to mention a few dimensions. Learning how to understand someone else's language usage as well as your own will enhance your communication skills enormously.

All of these variables--and others--come together to create an atmosphere in which communication can take place. The word that probably best describes this is RAPPORT. Good rapport involves comfort, trust, safety, clarity, patience, openness, honesty, warmth, genuineness, concern, and caring. Being able to put someone at his or her ease requires a high degree of sensitivity to that person. A large part is dependent upon your intuition, your gut-level response to the person. Learn to trust your senses and your feelings and to be guided by them. Learn to monitor these internal responses--your reactions--and to be able to reflect on them. They will influence your ability to create the desired atmosphere more than any technique you will ever master.

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