Effective Volunteer Training Focuses On Behavior

“You don’t solve other people’s problems for them, it is hard enough to handle your own.  You don’t save another person’s life, you help him or her get through a moment, this moment, now.”

This is the opening statement used in the training program for new volunteers applying to become hotline staff for the Samaritans Suicide Prevention Center in New York City, a role that, should they satisfactorily complete the  program, will result in their taking some of the 85,000 calls Samaritans responds to each year from people in crisis.

Besides setting the tone that will be utilized in the 32-hour intensive training to follow, the statement presents the potential volunteers with Samaritans’ philosophy and approach and, most importantly, the behaviors the organization requires from those who will, ultimately, be on the front lines providing our emotional support and crisis response services to people who are depressed, experiencing trauma, self-harming and suicidal behavior.

This focus on behavior is at the heart of Samaritans training—in both our hotline volunteer programs as well as the professional development training we have done for over 40,000 lay and professional health providers in New York City and environs over the past 25 years.

It is based on our own experience—as part of an international suicide prevention network with over 400 centers operating in 42 countries that have responded to tens of millions of people in crisis over the past 60 years in the US, Europe, Asia and Africa—as well as communications theory, research studies on rapport-building, stigma, at-risk individual’s resistance to seeking care and, dare I say (though in this evidence-based world this is an unpopular comment),  common sense.

Basically, we have learned that if people who are in distress are not comfortable with you, if they do not trust you, if you cannot communicate clearly with them; it does not matter how smart or caring or well-intentioned you are.  You are not going to be in a position to help.

Added to this is the fact that working on a confidential 24-hour hotline is akin to an extremely challenging professional job, just in this case the work is performed by people who do not get paid (think nurses who volunteer at hospice centers, volunteer fire and rescue team members, emergency service and disaster responders).  So the need for the individuals who are to staff the 24-hour hotline to be punctual, attentive, focused, accountable and able to follow directions, whether they understand them or not, is paramount.

Therefore Samaritans training does not wait to see how volunteers will perform once they have the position, we simulate and replicate that environment in training class.

The need for a behavioral-focused approach to training is by no means unique to Samaritans though we are, admittedly, very demanding of our volunteer staff due to the nature of our work.  But the fact is that many executive directors and volunteer coordinators of charities and nonprofits will admit in quieter moments, off the record, that though the enthusiasm and motivation of volunteers is extraordinary (frequently better than their paid counterparts), it is a tremendous challenge to separate the individuals who are sincere and devoted and are able to help within the confines of the organization from those who (whether they realize it or not) are more focused on helping themselves.

Most volunteer applicants when being interviewed will say that they are responsible, punctual, team players, open-minded, etc., but determining which candidates can actually behave that way is a necessity throughout both the recruitment and job training process.  I have met countless executive directors and volunteer program managers over the years that have expressed their envy of Samaritans’ ability to provide 24-hour hotline coverage 365 days a week, all with un-paid volunteer staff.  “How do you do it?” they ask.

The answer?  “We remove people who come late to training class.”  It’s that simple.

“I couldn’t do that,” they reply.  My response, coming from a business-focused cost-benefits perspective (for at the end of the day, no matter how wonderful the cause we represent, we are only going to be able to help people if we run an effective business): “So, what is it costing you in time, paid staff, organizational resources if you cannot count on volunteers to do their job?”

Our belief, and 30 years of training over 3,000 hotline volunteers confirm this: If you cannot get to training on time for a job you say you want; if you cannot be responsible and follow directions; then it would be a mistake to “hire you” to do the job when it counts.  And that is not to be cynical or negative, for volunteers are the lifeblood of Samaritans and have been since its inception in the early 1950’s, a period of time that we have collectively answered tens of millions of calls from people in crisis.  In fact, I began as a hotline volunteer over 30 years ago, which led me to change careers and become associated with some of the finest people I have ever known.

But not every person who wants to work in a certain environment is a good match for that organization and its needs.  This is true in the volunteer sector, as it is in the academic and corporate world.  Otherwise, I would be a world-renown jazz guitarist and no one would be reading this piece.  People have different strengths and weaknesses, different capabilities and it is up to the training program and the staff who implement it to do the best they can to match motivated candidates with the organization’s mission, focus, image and services.

So, again, at Samaritans, we find that it always comes back to behavior; and that is a thread that runs through our volunteer recruitment, training and, ultimately, individual performance evaluations.  We find that people who are able to satisfactorily practice certain behaviors tend to be successful in our environment and those who can’t, no matter how nice, well-intentioned, educated or sincere, do not.  You are either part of the problem or part of the solution, said a famous social activist.

The ability to communicate effectively, a behavior that plays a significant role in the functioning of every nonprofit volunteer organization, as well as the services they deliver, is a prime example.  Over the past 25 years, I can tell you that, almost without exception, every person who has applied to be a hotline volunteer has started out considering themselves to be open-minded, non-judgmental and a good listener.  I can also tell you that, after the first day of training, almost every one of them was in utter shock to learn how self-directed their communications were, how many assumptions they made and how much they tended to talk instead of listen.

The same is true with the behaviors of being collaborative, a team player, having a good attitude.  We have learned over the years to utilize exercises, roleplays and interactive discussions into the program (some of them using natural work teams; others, actor-trainers; still others, tools used in survival training, corporate communications, Zen practice) to see how people respond to simulated job environments.  These are easy behaviors to confirm in good candidates and even easier to identify in those who do not exhibit them or present the opposite—the monopolizers, the proselytizers, people who get sullen when they don’t understand something, the constant hand-raisers who interfere in a program’s progress, etc.

Every organization knows from experience what behaviors and attitudes work in their environment and which undermine and compromise.  Identifying them, creating environments where they can be played out and tested, where people can be viewed interacting individually, on a small team level, as part of a larger group; these exercises reinforce the behaviors and attitude an organization wants people to practice as well as uncovering those individuals who struggle with them (and may need additional help) as well as those who just don’t fit in.

Parallel to the behavioral aspect that is a thread throughout the training program, there is a step-by-step process that takes the candidates through the information and skills they will need to utilize to do the job.  On that front, as we begin, we make sure to tell every participant that they are all starting at the same level and it does not matter what their individual background, education or experience is.

Practicing the positive and accepting behavior we preach, we say: “If you just approach training with a positive attitude, participate in the exercises and follow directions you will get through this program fine.  Don’t worry about it, we are here to help.  But you must do the work.”

Then we start with the basics.  For the communications module, we define listening.  We draw diagrams showing that our focus is always on the receiver of the message, not the sender.  We outline what a declarative sentence looks like (because, whether you like it or not, the average American college graduate has an 8th grade reading level).  We use practice pairs (like exercise partners), we do drills (like music teachers having students practice scales), we utilize team exercises where they do group problem-solving (reminding them that everybody plays).

We work cooperatively and collaboratively and have assistant trainers observe who works well together and who does not.  After every exercise we debrief as a group, providing an outlet for their feedback and for them to express the challenges they are dealing with (and we observe these behaviors as well).  We explore together how things went, what was effective and what was not and what we need to work on.  We joke about how it felt going to the gym for the first time believing we needed to get in better shape, only to learn after the first workouts what really bad shape we were in.

We balance being serious with being light-hearted, constantly reminding people this is a process and not to look over their own shoulder, that we are nowhere close to evaluating anyone.  We are just working together, doing our best to practice the behaviors we know are the key to doing hotline work effectively and remind them that everyone has gone through this process and they need to go through it, too, but we are going to help them every step of the way.

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