Setting limits with Helpline callers is one of the most difficult tasks for a new helpline worker to master. It may go against a volunteer’s nature for them to be required to end calls with callers who still feel they need support or to set limits with callers who may be struggling with mental or cognitive disorders that make it more difficult for them to understand these limits.
The opposite side of that coin is that if volunteers do not set adequate limits with their callers, they will experience increased levels of burnout as they handle calls that are upsetting or even abusive; additionally, if limits are not placed on regular callers, they will “crowd out” crisis callers who may have less of an opportunity to receive support while at imminent risk because a repeat caller is using a disproportionate amount of service delivery.
5 Step Limit Setting Process
There is a 5-step process to setting limits with callers that is commonly used at the Distress Centre and I imagine other helplines or organizations where limit-setting is required. The five steps are as follows:
- Identify the inappropriate behaviour
- Identify what correct behaviour is
- Indicate the consequences for failing to change behaviour
- Give the caller an opportunity to change their behaviour
- Follow through on consequences (e.g. hanging up) if behaviour does not change
Let’s examine each of these steps in sequence:
Identify the inappropriate behaviour
The first step is to identify what inappropriate behaviour is. This can be an agency limit such as a prohibition on the discussion of sexual explicit content or of a caller masturbating on the phone, or this can be a personal limit like a volunteer being uncomfortable with a caller swearing.
The volunteer will identify the inappropriate behaviour, e.g. “I recognize you’re very angry but I need you to refrain from swearing during our conversation”
Identify what correct behaviour is
In a situation where there is a correct behaviour, the volunteer should indicate that. For example, “We can discuss this sexual experience but I need to stay focused on the emotions and not the physical elements of the act.”
Indicate the consequences for failing to change behaviour
This identifies what happens if a caller does not change their behaviour. “If we can’t stay focused on the emotions, I’m going to have to end the call.”
Give the caller an opportunity to change their behaviour
This is to allow the caller to show us they have recognized the issue, such as by refraining from swearing.
Follow through on consequences (e.g. hanging up) if behaviour does not change
In this step, the caller has not changed their behaviour so the volunteer ends the call. “I’m sorry, but I asked you to refrain from discussing the physical elements of this call. As you have continued to do so, I have to end the call now.” This should be followed by the volunteer hanging up!
This limit setting procedure can be used in a variety of settings, both in person and on the phone.
Call restrictions are different from in-call limits (described above), and instead describe things such as a caller being put on a 20 minute time limit per call, or being limited to one call a day. These limits are best deployed when a caller is using significantly more service than average.
One way that Distress Centre determines limits is by examining how often a caller uses our services and for how frequently. Our goal is to limit most callers (who have limits) to one call, once per day, and then to decide on how long. For instance, if a caller tends to call twice a day and speak for 30 minutes, we may set their restriction to one call a day, for 30 minutes.
This restriction is always suspended when a caller is in crisis so that we can de-escalate them or connect them to emergency support.
When placing a caller on restrictions it’s important to speak to them about the rationale for that. A caller who calls repeatedly is likely getting less out of each call than they would otherwise. One focused 30 minute call may deliver much more support to a caller than three 10 minute calls, for instance. One focused hour long call will provide more support to a caller than three hour long calls.
Speaking to the caller, you can explain that we want to make sure our service is available for that caller and help meet their needs but also meet the needs of our other callers and volunteers. If a caller is upset, we can help them find additional supports in their community in addition to the Distress Centre that can help meet their needs.
Working with Abusive Callers
Abusive callers can be very challenging. These are callers that frequently disregard the Five Step Limit Setting Procedure above and instead abuse volunteers by being insulting, sexually graphic or simply by disregarding their time limits consistently.
Abusive callers may need to be temporarily blocked until a staff member can speak with them, in order to reign in that behaviour. If a caller continues to be abusive, the best option may be to simply block that caller from using your service, referring them to alternates in your community.
Winding Up on Text and Chat
Text and chat is a different beast from the telephone. Conversations can stretch much longer if your responder is not careful. Fortunately there are a variety of winding up strategies that can be used on text and chat conversations.
When it comes time to wind up a conversation, you have a few options:
- We’re just coming up on (45/60/75/90) minutes so we’ll need to wrap up soon. I’m wondering if there’s anything else on your mind?
- We’ve been talking for (45/60/75/90) minutes, how are you feeling?
- I’m going to have to open up our queue soon, is there anything you haven’t told me yet that you want to?
- We’ve been talking for about an hour now so I’ll have to let you go for now
In situations where someone is using the service multiple times per day, you may wish to try things like:
- I saw that you’ve spoken to one of our responders earlier today, how did that conversation go?
- I’m wondering if we can focus on some coping strategies that can help you get through the rest of the night
In my experience most visitors respond positively to these gentle wind-ups and allow you to move towards wrapping up the conversation at the appropriate point.
In a future post I will discuss the technological options available for call blocking; it’s a good idea to check with your telephone provider about the option of blocking abusive or harassing callers from your helpline.
Limit setting can be a challenging task for your volunteers to master but is essential for their continued success on your lines!