“It sounds like you feel devastated because you’ve lost a best friend.”
“So I’m hearing that you want to stop using drugs in order to take care of your family better.”
“It must be exhausting to feel like you’re not good enough for your parents.”
“You’re such a strong person for dealing with this depression and being able to ask for help.”
“I’m impressed with how you handled that awkward situation.”

I sometimes think of my bank of standard phrases as a Swiss Army knife. It’s useful in all situations; you just have to choose the right tool.

When I log on to the Crisis Text Line platform on Wednesdays at six p.m., I whip out the knife and start looking around for the right tool to use with each texter. One with low self-esteem is going to need a lot of kind words and even some flattery. Another who writes paragraphs before I can get a word in edgewise is just going to need me to shut up and listen without trying to problem solve right away. A third who replies with two or three word answers to all my questions is going to need me to supply some language for their emotions. It’s all just a matter of sensing who’s on the other end of the phone.

Crisis Text Line is an organization that offers a 24/7 hotline that anyone in the U.S. can text if they are in a crisis situation. They simply text START to 741-741, and a trained crisis counselor (maybe me!) will respond and help them through their crisis. “Crisis” is a broad term that encompasses any range of situations or emotional states. Sometimes a texter is being bullied at school. Sometimes his wife passed away recently and he’s tired of burdening his friends with his sadness. Sometimes her boyfriend changed the locks on the house and now she and the baby have nowhere to stay and no diapers. I’ve been volunteering with CTL for nine months now, and every week I get at least one situation I’ve never faced before. Common issues like depression, anxiety, work stress, or relationship/breakup drama come up often, but you really never really know what you’re going to get when you click that “Help another texter” button.

I started volunteering with CTL because I read about them in The New Yorker. There was this great article full of heartwarming, pathos-building anecdotes mixed with just the right amount of data science to pique my interest. I could talk to people who are having a bad day and help them feel better. I’m a good listener. Or, I think I am. Maybe I’d learn to be better.

I didn’t exactly know what I was getting into when I applied to CTL. I was looking for a way to flex my latent social worker muscles (a teacher is part social worker, after all), and I thought texting was a really fresh service that we could offer to people who were too anxious to seek face-to-face counseling or to call a crisis phone line. What I got was so much more.

I spent several weeks going though an online training program that gave counselors-in-training a primer on the most common issues they’d face. I know more now about eating disorders and domestic abuse and depression than I ever have before. I learned to put specific words to people’s emotions, to show them I’m listening by rephrasing their issue and confirming it with them. I learned to encourage them by identifying their strengths and to use their names over and over and over again. I finished the training equipped with my Swiss Army knife of phrases and tactics and helpful reference websites. They’re skills I’ve applied in a surprising number of situations—particularly in my middle school classroom.

The number one thing I take away from every four-hour shift is a heightened sense of how universal pain and anger and loss are. The similarities among the texters I talk to are sometimes uncanny. One night I talked to a girl being bullied, and my very next texter was feeling guilty because her group of friends had started bullying someone at school. I’ve spoken with an incredibly diverse group of people—in age, gender, sexuality, race, religion, economic status, location, education level. But when you really get down to it, they’re all feeling versions of the same things. In training, we were taught to give specific words to people’s feelings, to say “devastating” instead of “sad” or “furious” instead of “angry.” But those are just fancy words for the fairly small and basic set of emotions we face as humans.   These people in crisis are sad or mad or jealous or worried. You don’t need a thesaurus to see that.

The other universal thing I see is what people want from a conversation with us. First and foremost, they just want someone to listen. I don’t know if we do this enough. In almost every conversation, I’ll ask something like “Have you been able to talk about this with someone you trust?” My aim is to expand their support network and help them see that they have options other than being stuck in their own heads. Sadly, very often their answer is something like “Yeah, I told my mom but she didn’t believe me” or “My friends are tired of hearing about it.” These people just need someone to listen. They don’t want advice or platitudes. They don’t want you to feel sorry for them. They don’t always want a solution (though I’m trained to try my hardest to find one). All they want is to feel that their problem is important and merits attention. It’s not a hard wish to grant.

I was fighting with technology the other day and logged on to Apple’s website to troubleshoot. I couldn’t find the answer in any forums, so I clicked the “contact us” link, preparing myself to spend a long time on hold before talking to a technician. I was surprised to see that they offered a live chat service, and I decided to give it a try. Just moments after entering my serial number, I was talking with Heather, who was very concerned about my issue. “I’m hearing that your computer is not working as fast as it should. Is that right?” she asked. What great service, I thought, making sure she understands the problem. Then she said, “I understand your issue, Abby, and I can see how that must be frustrating. I’m so glad you contacted us for help. I’ll do everything I can to resolve your issue.”

Then I had one of those light bulb, semi-déjà vu moments. She’s crisis counseling me! She identified my problem, she used my name, she validated my feelings, and she vowed to come up with an action plan. Even customer service has started to see the fruits of active and empathetic listening. Heather had her own Swiss Army knife of phrases that could walk someone through a crisis, albeit a different kind.

And it sort of made me think: what if I approached every conversation this way?

If you or someone you know is in crisis, Crisis Text Line is available 24/7 to bring you from a moment of panic to a place of calm. Text START to 741-741 to talk with a trained counselor. 

If you or someone you know is interested in volunteering as a crisis counselor, CTL is always looking for new recruits. Learn how to join us here.

Abby Zwart

Abby Zwart (’13) teaches high school English in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She spends her free time making lists of books she should read, cooking, and managing the post calvin.

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