Seminar: Telephone helplines

Knowledge of the working principles

David Elvy

Member of British Association for Counselling. B.S. Vice-President
Gendys Conference, 1994


The aim of my seminar was not to talk about gender issues or gender-related issues but to look at some of the issues that the helpline operator and worker should consider prior to offering their services. The same principles would apply to most helplines and it is these issues that are often overlooked by the willing helper who has limited or no experience of this work. The issues raised are equally important to the organisation running the helpline and the helpline worker. It is not intended to discuss the do's and don'ts of the work, as this should be covered in training, but rather more the structure and support that should be in place before any phoneline receives its first call.

The areas I cover will fall into two groups: the organisations and the individual. However, the individual should be quite clear in their mind that the organisation they are working with is aware of the issues raised and have addressed them. It is only when the individual is in possession of that information that they should decide whether or not the organisation is suitable for them. Likewise not all volunteers are suitable for helpline work.

Rather than writing a lengthy discourse on each point raised I will highlight a few key points. In the time allocated it was not possible to cover all of the areas of consideration and therefore the list below is by no means exhaustive.

Aims and Objectives

The most basic foundation for any organisation is to know their aims and objectives. Do they want to be a helpline for people with green eyes, both eyes or one green, one blue eye? What do they aim to achieve? What is the purpose of their being? Without clear aims and objectives it is impossible to set boundaries either in terms of subject or geography. Clarity at the start will save confusion later.


Once the aims and objectives are clear the organisation should adopt a policy on how they will deal with specific issues. Some of the policy headings might encompass the following:

(i) Ethics:

Does the organisation have a code of ethics that all helpliners abide by? Do the helpliners all have a copy? One of the problems with `befriending' helplines is that the helpers may develop social relationships with the caller, and their respective functions become blurred. The helpliner if not properly aware and trained may not even realise that there are major `power' issues between the caller and the helpliner and the caller may almost treat the helpliner as a saviour or fount of all knowledge.

(ii) Confidentiality.

This is always an issue. To what extent is confidentiality maintained? Is it purely to the individual or within the organisation? Can confidentiality be breached if somebody, adult or child, is at risk physically or psychologically from the caller?


Is the organisation covered by professional Indemnity Insurance and does that extend to cover the helpliners? What happens if a caller or their family tries to sue the organisation or individual for damages based on information given out? It is no use stating that the organisation is not counselling, only befriending. That is no defense in Law. If the organisation does not carry Professional Indemnity Cover, do the helpliners know that they may be sued personally and their own personal possessions, house, car etc may be at risk?

(iv) Support and Supervision.

What is the policy on supporting the helpliners? Are there people to whom the phoneliners can `off load' within the policy of confidentiality? It is not only unreasonable but unprofessional and abusive to the helpliner if they are expected to carry the load of all of the calls they may receive which may range from threats of suicide, divorce, assault, abusive calls, nuisance calls and verbal violence. There must be an outlet for the helpliner to look to for support, otherwise their own health may be put at risk and, at best, they are likely to suffer burnout very quickly.

The other side of the same coin is for the supervisor to be aware of the way in which the helpliner is dealing and coping with calls.

(v) Logs and Records.

It is important for logs and records to be kept of the date, time and types of call with a brief synopsis of the helpline's response. This will allow the helpliner to review their own degree of professionalism and, if there are later repercussions, records are available to check against what is being claimed by a caller.

(vi) Training.

Training is perhaps the most important and most ignored policy topic with many small organisations. It is not sufficient and could be positively dangerous to assume that because somebody has been subjected to the syndrome and subject of the helpline, and learned to deal with their problem, that they are suitable to work on a phoneline. They may be subjective rather than objective and end up transferring their personal views on to the caller They may not know how to deal with difficult calls, or recognise particular behavioural patterns. Training is a subject of major importance and the aspects of training are not part of this seminar but essential both for the well being of the caller and the helpliner. As desperate as an organisation may be for volunteer helpliners there may be times when they have to appreciate that a willing volunteer is not always a suitable helpliner and have to decline their offer of help.

The Helpliner.

The Helpliner may wish to ensure that all of the above is in place and also consider some other issues that may not be immediately obvious.


This was covered under 2(iv) but the helpliner should know how to contact other supervisor/support at any given time. You never know when you may need to discuss something that has been said to you by a caller or how the effect may present itself to you. Don't bottle it up. You will only do yourself a great deal of harm and cause yourself added stress or sleepless nights. What is the point of us being on a helpline, then lying awake all night thinking about a problem call? You will only shorten your helpful life on the phoneline and be of less benefit when you are next on call. There is no shame in using a support person. It is a sign of strength rather than weakness. Nobody should be expected to take on board all of their callers problems. It is just not acceptable. Off load and you will be better at your job.


Often callers may want simple information. Know your resources and those of your organisation. A little planning may save a lot of rummaging. You may wish to consider two files for resources - one with primary information used frequently and the other with secondary information that is used only occasionally. Know what you have and what your organisation has.


If your organisation has a policy to refer callers to other organisations or individuals be aware of your main reference points.

DO NOT BE AFRAID TO REFER ONWARD, if the caller is addressing areas beyond your knowledge, capability or experience. DO NOT try to deal with problems you are not trained to deal with. Often callers may have a number of problems. You may only be able to help them so far. You may know a lot about people with green eyes but, if that person tells you they also have two left feet, and you have no knowledge of that, you will quickly get out of your depth. That is not helpful to anybody - Refer on to the organisations who have specific knowledge. In other words know your own limitations and don't try to pontificate or dabble in areas that are alien to you. It is a hard lesson to learn but an important one.


The experiences of the helpliner may at times be a hindrance rather than a help. When the helpliner starts relating their own experiences, they stop being objective. What was right for the helpliner could be totally wrong for the caller, no matter how similar the situations may seem.

You will also leave yourself open to personal questions. What do you do? How did you cope with it? Where do you, then, draw the line of what is personal to you? You may not wish the caller to know your private life and, indeed, you should not be relating it to them. What you say with regard to the way you dealt with a problem may be taken as the definitive answer by the caller. Often when a caller is distressed, they will look to you for every answer. That puts you in a position of very great power even though you may not realise it. Do not abuse your position by being anything less than objective. Subjectivity will only lead to the caller being confused and the helpliner feeling that an intrusion into their personal circumstances has taken place.

(v)Regular Breaks.

During a session take regular breaks if you feel the need. Likewise at the end of a call take time to compose yourself for the next call. It is far better to take that time and be fresh for the next caller than carry the difficulties of one call on to the next. There is not a race to see how many calls can be taken in a session. Think quality rather than quantity.

(vi)In the Mood.

There undoubtedly will be times when you are scheduled to be on duty BUT you have a cold, feel ill, had a row at home, have a family priority, are in a foul mood.

If you are not in the right frame of mind then ask somebody to `fill in' for you. Nobody wants to be thought of as unreliable, but if you are not in the right frame of mind to answer calls with empathy, understanding, and a clear head, you will do neither yourself or the caller much good.

(vii)Personal Information.

Please do not give out personal information about other people without their consent. It is an abuse of their confidentiality

(viii)Self Evaluation.

At the end of a call and at the end of a session look at your log or records of calls. Just run over in your mind what was said and how the call was dealt with. How might you have handled the call differently. We all sometimes wish we would have said or not said something after the call has ended and self evaluation should help improve the standard of your technique and ability. We all make mistakes but let's try to learn from them.

I have addressed a few issues that I feel are important both to organisations running helplines and helpliners themselves. There are many more areas that time and space does not allow. For me the two most important issues are that the organisation and individuals know their boundaries, are well organised, well supported and trained. Too many organisations assume that a willing volunteer with knowledge of the subject is suitable to help on a phoneline and doesn't need training. This approach is extremely negligent and usually harmful to both helpliner and caller alike. With the best will in the world a good hearted volunteer is no substitute for a well trained volunteer.

Likewise, a volunteer should be no less professional in their ability than a paid helpliner.

I have tried to be objective in writing this note on helplines and hope that it has stimulated some thought amongst both the organisers of helplines and the helpliners.

Finally a thank you to all of you who give up your valuable time and effort to help others by being on the end of a phone for somebody who needs to speak about their problem.

David Elvy is a member of the British Association for Counselling and on the divisional committee of the Personal Sexual Relationships and Family Division and also on the working party to set helpline standards for the National Vocational Qualifications certificate and also a Trustee of the Beaumont Trust and Vice president of the Beaumont Society.

Citation: Elvy, D., (1994), Seminar: Telephone helplines: Knowledge of the working principles, GENDYS '94, The Third International Gender Dysphoria Conference, Manchester England.
Web page copyright GENDYS Network. Text copyright of the author. Last amended 06.07.06