September 23, 2015

Discovering the Power of Listening: Volunteering at SOS Help

The WICE Blog is presenting this guest post to spread awareness of this important service to expats in France.

By Rachel Mead*

I first contacted SOS Help – an English-language listening line based in Paris – to find out about its volunteering opportunities just one year ago, but I feel it has permanently and positively changed my ideas about listening.

When I started the training, I expected that most of the people calling up would be in crisis and acutely distressed. What I quickly learned was that while the callers are generally experiencing some form of emotional strain, their reason for calling and their way of speaking about it varies hugely.

People call about wide-ranging issues such as loneliness, financial difficulties, unemployment, difficulties integrating into French life, physical and mental health concerns, bereavement and relationship difficulties. While it’s true that the callers are sometimes distraught, even suicidal, they can also simply want to let off some steam or even treat their particular situation with wry humor.

The helpline really is for anyone experiencing any kind of difficult life experience.

SOS Help is neither a religious nor a political organisation and the other listeners I have met are from a range of nationalities, ages and backgrounds.

Twice a year, SOS Help holds recruitment information sessions at The American Church in Paris for people who live in the Paris region and can commit to at least 15 months with the organisation. They also need to be able to commit to three shifts and one ongoing training meeting per month.  

The next sessions will be held on:
Tuesday, September 29
Thursday, October 8
Wednesday, October 14

For people who want to get involved but can’t commit to that length or amount of time, the organisation also recruits supporters to set up fundraising events, help with publicity or in the general running of the organisation. 

Before training begins, every listener goes through two interviews: one with an experienced listener and the other with a professional psychologist to gauge their suitability for this kind of role.

Listener Training 
The listener training involves one full-day Saturday session and four evening sessions with a professional therapist as well as several shifts alongside experienced listeners. During this time, listeners are trained to provide empathetic, non-judgmental and confidential listening to anyone in emotional distress.

One aspect that the training emphasizes is the importance of anonymity and confidentiality. Listeners don’t discuss calls outside of the listening team or have access to the telephone number of any caller. We also don’t talk about ourselves or our opinions, even if the caller requests us to. The call is firmly focused on the callers themselves.

The area I found especially interesting was the discussions on the skill of supporting without intervention: volunteers are there to listen rather than to counsel or give personal opinions. It made me think about my own reactions when my family and friends would start telling me about something they were struggling with. I realised that at times I was quick to leap in with reassurance, solutions, or questions that moved the conversation away from the feelings the person wanted to express.

What the training reveals is how useful it can be to simply act as a sounding board. While the organisation is called SOS Help, it’s more about listening to callers so they can help themselves; when callers are given a space to safely explore their feelings, they can often work through any emotional blocks and find their own solutions. Sometimes it can be surprising to see how you can say very little during a call and at the end the caller will tell you how much better they feel.

From my point of view, although I still sometimes pick up on my own bad listening habits in everyday life, it has definitely made me appreciate listening in a new light.

SOS Help

SOS Help can be reached on 01 46 21 46 46
The listening line is staffed from 3 to 11pm daily.

Find further information on volunteering at SOS Help: Volunteer
Find out about the next recruitment session at  SOS Help: Events

*Name changed to protect anonymity