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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.

The questions I asked were based on a psychology technique called active listening, first developed by Carl Rogers in the 1940s and common practice at crisis hotlines. It is fairly simply to use. If a stranger says that the end is near, respond with, “The end is near?” This can keep a conversation going indefinitely.

This parroting technique was essential during my time as an operator, when I was never allowed to give advice, just directions to housing shelters or community centers. Like a mirror, the questions helped callers reflect on their thoughts and come up with solutions on their own. Afterward, they would thank me.

To improve my social skills, my aunt gave me a worn copy of Dale Carnegie’s 1936 bestseller, How to Win Friends and Influence People. I read it in one sitting.

According to Carnegie, successful conversationalists are genuinely interested in other people. They smile, remember names, encourage others to share their stories, and listen.

It takes practice, but it works. Using these techniques, there’s no such thing as a bad date, job interviews always lean in your favor, and friends regularly call to catch up.

In crisis or not, people want to feel like what they have to say is important. All it takes is eye contact, a grin, and a follow-up question.

My failure as a crisis worker made me question whether I should pursue genetic counseling. Eventually, I decided to become a journalist instead. I regularly fall back on the listening skills that I learned while volunteering for the hotline. It helps that most of my interviews are done over the phone.

Occasionally, I’ll notice the same hint of loneliness from my sources that I did from the “regulars.” While most people I call can’t wait to hang up on me, there are others—a shrimp farmer, an earth science teacher—who are hungry to talk. So I let them, sometimes for hours at a time.

These conversations make me think that we don’t listen to each other enough. It’s such a simple task, but too many people must rely on hotlines, therapists, or the occasional reporter to feel heard.

Before he died, the philosopher Paul Tillich remarked, “The first duty of love is to listen,” and I agree. But as Dale Carnegie advises, we must listen without criticism, condemnation, or complaint.

If the man with murderous impulses called today, I’d be ready for him. “I can kill her so easily,” he would taunt. “You can kill her so easily?” I’d ask, phone pressed against my ear. “Tell me more.”

mouth and ear

Joseph Caputo ’07 is a recent graduate of Boston University’s Center for Science and Medical Journalism. He is currently an editorial intern at Smithsonian magazine.


Sarah Lawrence welcomes submissions for Eureka Moment. Send your story of discovery in everyday life, no more than 800 words, to publications@sarahlawrence.edu.