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Guidelines for Selection of Hotline Volunteers

Barry Greenwald, Ph.D.

Comfort with Self Disclosure
How comfortable is the candidate talking about him/herself in a personal, open way? Can the person talk about personally difficult concerns and issues? If there is difficulty, do you think the kind of training offered will help to reduce (not totally eliminate) the defensiveness?

To Determine in the Initial Interview: Ask the candidate to talk about something in his/her life that stirred a great deal of feeling. Notice what is included and what is left out. Gently and sensitively ask about the "left out" areas and see how the candidate handles the request for further information. If the candidate volunteers an event that was positive, stay with it, but then go back and ask about an event that stirred negative or less positive feelings.

If the candidate cannot think of anything, be silent for awhile, encouraging them with "Take your time..." "Sometimes it's hard to think of something on the spot..."

When this part of the interview is concluded, ask the candidate how he/she felt about talking about it. If the response is perfunctory, pursue a little harder. We would like to know something about the candidate's processing skills and self observation.

Processing and Dealing with Feelings
How does the candidate deal with his/her emotional life? How does she/he express affection, caring, nurturing, shame, guilt, anger, rage, helplessness, vulnerability, frustration. Which are easy; which are hard?

To Determine in the Initial Interview: Begin with direct questions that are to the point. What are you like when you are angry? What are you like when you are feeling happy? How are you likely to show caring? What do you do when you feel slighted, not included, passed over? How do you deal with feeling helpless? What is it like for you when you feel vulnerable? If the candidate has difficulty, encourage her/him to think of a situation in which these feelings might have emerged. A paucity of responses in this area is as important sometimes as anything else. It tells you the candidate does not even think in these terms.

Rigidity and the Inclination to be Judgmental
Neither of these categories are assets to the kind of work that we do. At the same time, their presence should not be a reason to exclude a candidate from training unless the interviewer is absolutely convinced that not even an atom bomb would cause the person to alter these characteristics. It is also important to understand whether these characteristics are global and pervade the entire personality or somewhat more selective and particularized.

To Determine in the Initial Interview: Certain topics are more likely than others to bring forth judgmental postures, e.g., rape, abortion, right-to-life, drugs, child abuse, wife or husband abuse, incest, or gay issues. We are interested in knowing whether the person is so biased on a particular issue that it would be impossible for him/her to see the other side, e.g., Can the pro-lifer understand the woman who chooses an abortion? Can a woman with strong feminist positions ever enter the frame of reference of a man who beats his wife? The ability to see both sides of an issue even if one side is infinitely more attractive is the quality we are looking for or hoping to develop. Bringing up these issues in the interview first to ascertain the candidate's position and then asking his/her to present the other side can be a means for determining how open, non-judgmental the person is.

Rigidity is a part of the judgmental stance but includes more. The rigid person cannot easily change or adapt. If he/she gets stuck in a particular style of working with a caller and isn't working, he/she is not going to be able to change to something that might work better. Rigidity can also be shown by the person who is never comfortable with confronting or questioning and sees the job as "just listening" and never anything else. The interviewer can begin to explore this by presenting a particular problem and asking the candidate to envision as many different responses as possible to the caller and his/her problem. This is not an easy task and it is important to keep in mind that the candidate is not an experienced volunteer as yet and our expectations in terms of the alternatives offered should be tempered by that knowledge. It is also important to remember that the candidate is attempting to present him/herself in the best manner possible.

Listening Skills
Listening is probably the most difficult task of the volunteer and the hardest task to teach. Answering phones is likely to provoke a good deal of anxiety and this emotion is more likely to interfere with listening than anything else. The initial interview with the candidate is also anxiety provoking even if the candidate denies that this is so. The candidate wants to be chosen and is attempting to put her/his best foot forward--often if gets stuck in her/his mouth. Listening is more than just hearing the words that have been said; more importantly, it is hearing between the words and catching the feeling content as well.

To Determine in the Initial Interview: Plan a somewhat lengthy explanation of the hotline and its expectations and deliver it with some feeling. When you have finished, ask the candidate to repeat back what he/she heard. Listen for what is included and what is left out. Does the candidate spontaneously add the feeling tone that was heard? If not ask about it. "What do you think my feelings were when I was saying this to you?" "How do you think I feel about the hotline?"

Why does someone want to join a hotline? There are lots of activities that will be less demanding time wise and emotionally. We are bound to attract "rescuers," "knights in shining Selection of In-Touch Volunteers 3armor," "super-persons," chicken soupers," and people who have had the "truth" revealed to them. Their plan is to use the phone as a pulpit from which to spread the gospel. There is probably some of the above in all of us. The question is how much and how amenable is it to change. Bound inextricably with this issue is what people conceptualize as real help. Part of the training and success on the line is developing a new perspective on help and some people can never quite manage it. Our help is seldom the active, "taking over a person's life" kind. That's the easiest (often the least effective) kind of assistance to offer. Allowing a person to work out their own solutions in a safe climate is much the harder route and much the harder to assess in terms of success. It leaves the volunteer without any concrete evidence to cling to that he/she has done a good job. It is also a primary source of "burn out." We need to know not only why a person wants to be on the line but something about what he/she thinks he's/she's going to be able to accomplish.

To Determine in the Initial Interview: You may ask directly "What made you think of joining the hotline?" Depending upon how that question is answered, the interviewer's skills determine what to follow-up on. You want to get beyond the superficial and easy answer to see what the candidate really thinks and feels about this kind of work.

To find out about the candidate's conception of help, the interviewer can ask about times int the candidate's life when she/he has either asked for or received help from others. Ask the person to evaluate the help, i.e., what was good about it, bad about it. Why did or didn't it work? Important to discover here is the candidate's view of those who seek help. It is always interesting to discover that someone who wishes to help others would never ask for help her/himself. There rages inside a fierce, uncompromising independence that is threatened by even the acknowledgment that help is needed. It's okay to give but never to receive. This posture also covers a view that people in need are really weak or sick or something else non-positive, and no matter what else is said, he/she cannot really respect "the needing person." This is a difficult attitude to undo because it is often subtly ingrained in the fabric of the personality. In the interview, it might well be worth confronting the candidate with this perception to see what he/she will do. If it is denied, we have learned something. If it gives the candidate some pause for reflection, there is hope. But it will have to be watched.

Personal Style
Assessing a candidate's personal style is a very subjective affair. You are really being asked a series of questions. Do you like the person? Would you be comfortable working shifts with her/him? Is she/he the kind of person who would get along with others on the line? Can this person work with others in a cooperative manner? You are not obliged to fall in love with every candidate; you don't even have to envision the person becoming a close friend. What is important is that the person's personality be such that he/she can fit comfortably on the line and do the job. A person who is abrasive, alienating, manipulating may do more harm to the internal structure of the line regardless of how skillful he/she may be on the phones. This factor is an incredibly difficult one to calculate and to assess and it is probably the one that gives us more trouble than any other. It often occurs under the guise of other assessments, but if the truth were known, it would boil down to "I just don't like this person."

Verbal Skills and Intelligence
This is a phone line and everything we do depends upon our ability to communicate verbally. To be able to put into words the complexity and diversity of human emotions is no simple task and most of us are still in the "learning stage." Many people simply do not have a good vocabulary, but in particular, their vocabulary for feeling words is impoverished. Part of the training is to teach this vocabulary, but it is also good to have an assessment of what the candidate comes with before we impact him/her further.

To Determine in the Initial Interview: Bring your own listening skills forward. No special questions are needed. Listen for how many words are used to describe feelings, especially when the candidate is talking about their personal experiences. Some people describe everything as "gross, " or "weird," or "freaked-out." Those words cover a multitude of sins with a vague fog. These global feeling terms should be asked about. "What do you mean 'weird'?" "When you say 'gross' what does that cover?" Vagueness after inquiry tells you something about the richness of their feeling vocabulary. And on the other hand, the person who is able to articulate in greater detail when a question is asked tells you that resources exist to be tapped.

Hotliners need to be reasonably intelligent; they have to, at least, be able to make sense out of the things we are trying to tell them and to absorb a lot of information. They do not have to be Einstein. Neither do they have to speak the King's/Queen's English. They have to be able to communicate in an understandable manner. If you have trouble understanding them or the points they are trying to make, rest assured, so will a caller.

The training and staffing of the line requires a very serious commitment. It is our job as interviewers to communicate clearly just what level of commitment is required. It can only partially be measured in the hours put into training or into the hours required to staff the line. That's the minimum--but in truth--we probably want more. The candidate who is having trouble with just deciding about whether he/she will be able to deal with the training hours is likely to have trouble serving shifts. The sooner we learn this one, the better. People have to work late hours and if they anticipate trouble here, we're going to have trouble later. Better to know that in the initial interview.

Besides working the required hours, there is just the quality of being willing to go one step beyond the basics. Try to pick this up from the work history. What was the candidate's attitude when they were asked to work over time or beyond the cal of duty. We are not looking for martyrs but neither are we looking for people who are only interested in the easiest way.

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