It’s just about my 10 year volunteering anniversary for Nightline, a student support helpline. A decade at Nightline has shaped my career. It has also given me most of the expertise I use to train professionals in listening skills today.
In true internet listicle style, here are 10 things I learned in 10 years at Nightline. I will, however, spare you the BuzzFeed-esque gifs. Some of these are about listening skills and others are more about personal development, but I hope you find them all useful.
1. Listening is a skill, not a natural ability.
In 10 years, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any new volunteer come in already knowing how to listen, unless they’ve done some kind of training already. Listening skills are uncommon.
Listening is something we do every day, but we’re rarely taught the skills to do it properly (It takes training and practice to craft good questions, show that you’re listening, reflect on what has been said, and refrain from passing judgement. Plug: check out our courses for that.
2. Open questions are far better than closed questions.
Speaking of crafting good questions, the first step to a good question is making it open. Open questions usually start with words like “why” and “how.” Crucially, they require more than a one-word answer, allowing the speaker to expand on what has been said.
Closed questions can completely shut down a conversation, both on helplines and in a professional context. All helpline volunteers know the panic of thinking what on earth to say when a caller simply says “no” in response to an accidentally asked yes/no question. Don’t get yourself in that situation. Keep your questions open.
3. Silences need not be uncomfortable – they can be a great tool.
As a new volunteer, I often panicked when there were silences in my Nightline calls. I thought that my job was to keep the conversation going, and I would rush to say the first question that came to mind that came to my head, no matter how terrible it was. With practice, I learned to get comfortable with silences and use them to think of a better response to what the speaker just said.
On calls, and in life, leaving comfortable silences has made me sound more confident and intelligent. Silences are also a powerful tool in negotiations and other difficult conversations, but that will have to be another blog post someday. It’s something I teach in the mastery course, too.
4. Non-verbals are surprisingly useful.
I never knew the breadth of meaning and the endless available variations of “mmhmm” before Nightline. Such non-verbal responses are particularly useful in phone conversations, where you don’t want to interrupt the speaker but still show they have your attention. Without them, a caller might feel like they’re talking to a dead line. I now use them all the time, even in face-to-face conversations.
Last Saturday, we challenged our Twitter followers to see how long they could carry on a conversation using only non-verbal responses. My personal record is well over 20 minutes.
5. Often, listening is more powerful than giving advice.
The best calls at Nightline were those where the caller, given a chance to talk out their problem, found their own solution. At Nightline, we don’t give advice. This is partly because our volunteers aren’t experts or qualified professionals, but also because it’s empowering for the caller to make their own decisions.
Again, in the mastery course, I teach how to do something I call “nonvice.” This is essentially using your listening skills to allow the speaker to create their own advice. Not only does it make you seem like a master problem solver with little effort, it’s also useful in a number of tricky situations.
6. Teaching is genuinely one of the most rewarding things.
I signed up to Nightline because I thought supporting others would be rewarding. I soon found out that what I found rewarding wasn’t the direct supporting of callers; it was the training.
In my first three months at Oxford Nightline, I was co-opted into training new helpline volunteers. I loved scrutinising the terrible practice calls at the beginning, watching the figurative lightbulbs switch on above trainees’ heads when I explained something, and seeing the vast improvement of most trainees by the last training day. Within six months, I was appointed on committee as Training Officer for two terms. During training season, I sometimes spent 40 hours per week volunteering.
I would estimate that, throughout my Nightline career, I have trained a couple hundred volunteers and I never tired of it. That’s how I knew I wanted teaching to be part of my career.
7. Impostor syndrome is more common than you think.
Being confided in by strangers is truly a privileged position, and it teaches you a lot about common human experience. For three years, I took calls from fellow Oxonians, and what struck me most was the ubiquity of impostor syndrome among high-achieving students.
At what was recently listed as the best university in the world, one of our most common type of callers were students who felt like they didn’t deserved to be there. However, I’m sure that most of them did, at least as much as anyone else. In life, I find this strangely encouraging.
8. There are many different ways to listen, and that’s ok.
When I left Oxford for University College London (UCL) to do graduate study, the first thing I did was sign up for Nightline volunteering in London. Each branch of Nightline runs independently, having their own policies and training. I had to re-train as a London Nightline volunteer and I was shocked at how different their listening style was.
The Oxford style was fairly strict and purist, consisting mostly of questions. The London style was more loose and complex, intermingling questions with reflective sentences and something they called “truisms” (more on this in a future blog post). I was further surprised to see that the London method worked just as well as the Oxford one on the lines, and I now use elements of both in my coaching.
9. You probably can (and should) delegate more than you think.
I was eventually offered the full-time role of London Nightline coordinator, effectively the director and only full-time employee of an independently registered charity supporting half a million students. I was so excited and had so many ideas, but I had no real experience running an organisation at that point. I was not expecting the huge amount of work it was just to keep the charity ticking over, let alone achieve the developments I had planned. It did not come naturally, but I had to learn to delegate.
I would not have been able to achieve anything there without the support of the volunteers – especially the committee members who helped things run so smoothly. I was continually amazed how much others were willing to help, and how much more could be achieved with a group effort.
10. Helpline training is not just for helplines.
Although I can no longer volunteer on the helpline and now only work with the Nightline Association in an advisory capacity, I still use my helpline listening skills daily. I use them with my friends and when I meet new people (hint: people like you much more when you actively listen to them). I use them at work (even before Glisten Training) on the phone with clients, in meetings with colleagues, and when talking with superiors. Most of my Nightline friends tell me they do the same, and one actually landed a job when he simply “nightlined” his prospective boss in an interview.
Ultimately, this broad applicability of helpline skills is what gave me the idea to start Glisten Training. In essence, I teach the listening skills that I learned from helplines, boiled down and tailored to a professional context, potentially saving you years of overnight helpline shift experience.
That said, if helpline volunteering is something you would like to do (and I highly recommend it!), but you are no longer a student, check out Samaritans. It’s a similar charity I have also enjoyed volunteering for, and you need not be a student to do it. If you are lucky enough to still be studying, find your local nightline and see if they’re recruiting.