How to Listen
by Joseph Caputo ’07
"I can kill her so easily,” said the man. He was standing at a pay phone somewhere in the United States and watching a woman. She was waiting for the bus. She had never met this man before.
Sitting in the New York office of a crisis hotline, I responded with soft “uh-huhs” as the man described the many ways he could murder her: slit her throat, strangle her, or shoot her dead, for starters.
I’d signed up at the hotline to gain experience handling difficult conversations, in preparation for a graduate program in genetic counseling I hoped to attend. In the few months I’d been a hotline operator, I’d discovered how valuable a good listener could be, and I wanted to be one. I just needed practice.
I trained for weeks to be non-judgmental. I had already talked strangers through suicidal thoughts, a break-up, even an instance of human trafficking. But this was too much. A smile broke across my face and I giggled nervously.
The man did not register the laugh; he continued to talk about how badly he wanted to kill. Unfortunately, my supervisor noticed. She signaled for me to transfer the call to another operator and motioned me toward her booth. She told me that my nervous giggle was inappropriate and I wasn’t cut out for this. I was never asked back to volunteer.
On my first day of hotline training, I learned about the people who call every day. The experienced operators know all the “regulars” by first name. They are allowed 10 minutes to rant: about their family, the Jews, last night’s episode of Jeopardy!. After listening, you sum up what they said and politely end the call.
I also learned about the sex callers. They never announce their intentions and sound like any other guy with a crisis at first. The give away is silence or a plea to “keep talking, baby.” With them, you can just hang up.
About 95 percent of crisis work is listening to lonely people. You pass lonely people on the street every day, but they’re hard to spot. There’s no signal for “I have no one to call when I go home tonight.”
After my time at the hotline, I began to watch for them. When strangers spoke to me on the subway, I listened. Sometimes, I even asked questions.