Applying Active Listening

Lessons from a crisis counselor
Julia Lessing

Photo: Shutterstock/Katya Kovarzh

Not long after I finished my last actuarial exam, one of my closest friends went through a traumatic divorce. Her mental health was affected, and before long, she was having suicidal thoughts.

Despite taking some counseling training when my children were little, I felt ill-equipped to help my friend. I didn’t know what to say to her, and I was worried about making things worse by saying the wrong thing. Fortunately, she got some good professional help and made a full recovery.

The experience left me searching for an opportunity to learn how to help someone in this terrifying situation. I signed up to train as a telephone crisis counselor for Australia’s national suicide and crisis hotline, Lifeline. One thing I didn’t realize when I signed up was how powerful the skills of a crisis counselor can be—not just on the phones, but at work and even at home.

But I’m an Actuary—I’m Good With Numbers!

In our training class, there were people from different backgrounds—including psychology—and I was worried that I didn’t have the natural aptitude for crisis counseling that my classmates appeared to have. As an actuary and “numbers person,” I find it much easier to manage more concrete things, like numbers and actions, while human communication is something that doesn’t come quite as naturally.

For four months, I spent every Saturday learning how to answer calls from people in crisis. As the course progressed, I realized that good communication can be broken down into “microskills” and some formulas that anyone can learn. Being a logically minded actuary helped me learn these skills.

The Magic of Listening

As I learned and applied the first module on listening skills to my life, I noticed that my day-to-day conversations with people—both at home and work—started to change. People started opening up more, and conversations became deeper, often going a different direction from how they usually played out in the past. Instead of just telling me his day was “fine,” my husband started following me around the house sharing details about his day. It was as though I’d opened the flood gates of communication, and I didn’t know how to close them!

We eventually learned how to wrap up conversations, and by that time, I had discovered how learning and applying some simple communication techniques could improve conversations and relationships. There was less conflict at home as I got better at actually hearing everyone’s perspective. Simple activities, such as choosing where to go for dinner, got easier. I noticed less confusion, more connection and stronger relationships with the people around me.

How Can These Skills Help Actuaries in the Workplace?

Although having the skills to answer a crisis call requires significant training, the same skills that crisis counselors use to diffuse high-stakes situations also can be applied to improve outcomes in everyday conversations.

Many of the skills I learned from answering crisis calls have been helpful in my professional life as an actuary. Everyday team communication, collaborative problem-solving and coaching conversations became easier and more effective. Even more challenging conversations, such as delivering difficult feedback or negotiating a scope change with a client, felt easier.

Here are my key learnings from answering crisis calls that can help actuaries at work:

Show You Are Listening

Active listening is a powerful but underrated skill. Just feeling heard can reduce the level of someone’s distress and help them think more clearly. Crisis counselors show they are listening by making encouraging noises (e.g., “mmm”), so the caller can hear they are listening. They also paraphrase and summarize what the caller has said to show they have been listening.

The benefits of active listening at work include building trust, better business relationships and clearer communication, which can reduce confusion and risk and improve productivity. In the office or over Zoom, you can also see one another, so body language is important. Put your phone down, make eye contact and take care not to interrupt. Summarize what you’ve heard to give the other person a chance to confirm you’ve heard and understood them correctly. Active listening is important and works best if you also show that you are listening.

Silence Is Golden

The word “communication” often makes us think of activities such as speaking or writing. However, the use of silence also can be a powerful communication tool. Crisis counselors use silence to create space for the caller to reflect and process their thoughts.

At work, using silence in a conversation can be a powerful tool in a range of situations. Conversations involving negotiation, delivery of feedback or difficult messages often can be challenging and involve high emotions. Using silence after asking a question or making an important statement can maximize impact while giving the other person time to process what you are saying. Resist the urge to fill the space, and let the power of silence work its magic.

Help by “Grounding” When Emotions Run High

When humans feel strong emotions, such as anxiety or anger, it can be physiologically impossible for them to think rationally. It can be difficult to help someone or work collaboratively to solve an issue when they are in this state.

The first job of the crisis counselor is to assess and take action to reduce the level of a caller’s distress. In many cases, simply listening to the caller is enough to calm them down. Crisis counselors also use a range of “grounding” techniques to help bring down the level of a caller’s distress. This might include asking if the person would like a drink of water, what they’ve eaten that day or what they can see from where they are calling.

At work, emotions can run high in many situations, such as when the team is meeting tight deadlines or when you are delivering difficult messages. In these situations, it is important to check the level of stress of those around you. If they appear to be very distressed, you may not be able to have a productive conversation. Consider taking them for a coffee, suggest getting out of the office for a walk, or even ask them, “You seem stressed today; would you like to talk about it?”

Attempting to have a conversation with someone whose emotions are running high can be unproductive. Helping them to calm down will usually mean they are better positioned to hear you.

You Don’t Need to Know All of the Answers

One of the first lessons counselors are taught is not to give advice. Few people like being told what to do, and under pressure, this can further increase distress. Crisis counselors understand that their job is to reduce stress, skillfully listen and guide callers through their situations to derive suitable next steps. Although it can be tempting to try and advise someone in distress, it is important to remember that, when given the opportunity to think things through, people usually know what’s best for them.

Often at work, especially as managers, we can fall into the trap of thinking we need to know everything and tell others exactly how to do things. However, by taking a coaching approach and guiding your teammates through their options, they are likely to reach a more suitable outcome.

You can do this by asking open-ended questions, such as: “What a dilemma—what do you see as the pros and cons?” or “What do you think would happen if you did x, y or z?” Advice is best received when it is asked for, so you could also try saying, “I’ve been in a similar situation before; would you like to know how I handled it?” Even if you have no idea what you’d do in the other person’s situation, you can help just by listening.

Remember the Formula to Guide the Conversation

When the crisis hotline phone rings, you never know what kind of call you are going to answer. It could be someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one, someone in immediate danger or, sadly, even a prank caller. However, crisis counselors help each caller by applying the same overarching “formula” to answer every call.

The formula for answering a crisis call involves three parts: reduce distress, focus on the issues and agree to next steps. You also can use this formula to get better outcomes from conversations you have at work.

We already covered listening and grounding, and these are good ways to help someone feel better and think clearly. Next, focusing on the issue can help keep the conversation on track. What is the key topic for this conversation, and what outcome are we looking for? If you have initiated the conversation, this will be easier to identify. However, if the other person has approached you, you may need to ask questions to figure out which topic is most important. You also may need to ask more questions to brainstorm options to solve the issue at hand.

Agreeing to next steps is always helpful, even if the plan is simply to have another conversation later. Next steps also might involve suggesting talking to a different person or a professional to assist with the issue. It can help to suggest a time frame for the plan and think through what would get in the way of the plan being executed.

Conclusion

Hopefully you won’t be supporting personal crises in the workplace every day. However, learning and applying some of the skills that crisis counselors use can help you have more effective conversations and build better relationships with those around you at work.

Try using these lessons—active listening, using silence, grounding, avoiding advice and using the formula—in your next workplace conversation, and let me know how it goes!

Julia Lessing, FIAA, is the director of Guardian Actuarial based in Sydney, Australia.

Statements of fact and opinions expressed herein are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily those of the Society of Actuaries or the respective authors’ employers.

Copyright © 2022 by the Society of Actuaries, Schaumburg, Illinois.