“High-Risk” – classification given to conversations with texters who have been deemed to have a high-risk of suicide.
As a crisis counselor, conversations like these jolt your adrenalin and training into action. Your own emotions are quickly put aside and you dig in.
For the past 12 weeks, I have spent more than 50 hours interacting with at least 60 different people from across the country as a Crisis Counselor on Crisis Text Line.[i]
In December as I began my first shifts, I remember sweating with anxiety as I tried to provide empathetic support with a quick texting cadence in a single conversation; fast forward to today, I can confidently handle two, occasionally three, conversations at once. Suffice to say, I have experienced tremendous learning and growth throughout these past few months. My ability to provide compassionate and empowering support has improved exponentially with each new conversation.
This high-level confidence, though, can be misleading. One of the truisms I have come to accept without question in the world of crisis intervention is this: You never know what’s coming next, what new crisis lies around the corner.
Every Wednesday afternoon as I log into the CTL platform and begin my shift, this unpredictability is what gets me most. Immediately as I begin my conversations, my investigative mind switches “on” – trying to understand the world from the texter’s point of view and at the same time grappling with the opportunity to play an empathetic role in their story.
A conversation can be going “smoothly” or at least be following a somewhat predictable trajectory, only to suddenly escalate into a high-risk scenario. As a counselor we search for these “red flags,” sometimes only one or two words that make an otherwise innocent text into a critical call for help. There is no amount of training that could have properly prepared me for that feeling when my heart stops and I feel as though my texter and I are all that matter in the world. “Tunnel vision” is putting it mildly. In those moments my vision blurs, hearing deafens and all I see is the crisis playing out in front of me.
Let me pause and acknowledge that just as the texter is no longer alone in that moment, we as counselors are also supported each step of the way. As we enter high-risk conversations, we maintain communication and guidance from professionally trained supervisors. It still falls on us, though, to steer the conversation with our own words of empathy and support.
Sometimes we are able to witness and be a part of the full cycle that takes a texter from their life-threatening crisis to a calmer state. Other times the conversation goes silent just as quickly as it began; these are the most distressing situations. And in rare circumstances (1% of our total conversations) our team works together to initiate an “active rescue” of the texter in danger.
These high-risk conversations, and more broadly my entire experience with CTL, have given me an entirely new perspective on what it means to step into another person’s shoes; to try to feel what they feel; to embrace that you are not the center of the world; to fundamentally believe that everyone deserves to be heard and has a story to tell, if you care to listen. Indeed, listening is the hard part. I find that we have a problem saying what we feel and they have a problem hearing what we mean. This disconnect leads to so many “missed signals” of both the low-risk nature (tastes and preferences, professional priorities etc.) and those of life and death. While it is not our responsibility to catch every “red flag” we come across in our day-to-day lives, active listening conversations provide an opportunity to reach a new level of emotional intelligence. Such a breakthrough has the potential to reverberate across all aspects of our lives: from how we deal with our own internal crises to our daily interactions and empathic understanding of others.
I have found that this ability manifests itself in nearly every professional as well as personal field. A sales team connecting with the “pain points” of its customers. A politician empathizing with the primary concerns of voters. A doctor understanding how a patient’s symptoms and lifestyle contribute to an effective diagnosis. The list could go on and on. In each environment, though, active listening unlocks a new level of our emotional intelligence and an ability to more effectively respond to the challenges we face.
While I may be self-aware, I do not profess to be perfect. Active listening is an art not a science; one that can only be honed through trial and practice. This combination of mindfulness and understanding must constantly be tested, adapted and reworked to suit our environments. Moreover, while “high-risk” conversations may serve to highlight the importance of active listening, they are not daily experiences – nor should they be. Instead, it is the casual friendly interactions, professional meetings and familial arguments that demand the lion’s share of our attention. We may never have control over how a person responds; but, active listening empowers us to step into a world outside our own, resign our self-primacy and reach a new level of understanding.