Volunteer Listener Guide
Image by Annie Spratt
Thank you for your interest in becoming a Volunteer Listener! Listeners are the lifeblood of this community, and you are what people are coming to the site for. Speakers come for a variety of reasons: they may not want to burden their friends or family, or fear that they won’t understand. Millions of people around the world suffer from loneliness, and may not have anyone to turn to. This is why your empathetic support is so important.
This guide will walk you through what to expect during a Listening Session on Listenly. We also review some of the key techniques of Active Listening.
Connecting with a Speaker
There are multiple ways of matching with a speaker on Listenly. If your profile is marked “public” in your settings, a speaker may find you by browsing or searching for key terms that appear in your profile. They can send you a message, and together you can schedule a time to chat.
Speakers may also select the “Connect with a Listener Now” button, which puts them in a queue to be picked up by the next available Listener. If you have Listenly.co open, and you are enabled as a Listener, you will see a red banner at the top of the page and the page title will blink in the browser tab letting you know there are speakers waiting. Click the “Answer Request” button to get matched with the Speaker that has been in the queue longest.
Messaging With Speakers
Chats start on the Messages window, where you send messages back and forth with your Speaker. From the Messages window, you can also message other speakers, and the Listenly Support Team. Individual chats persist, so you can return to a given conversation at any time.
The chat messaging feature is designed to be open-ended. Conversations may last for 5 minutes or up to 30 minutes. (For now, we’re using 30 minutes as the upper limit on Listening Sessions.) Once you feel the conversation naturally winding down, or at about the 25 minute mark, let your Speaker know that you will need to leave soon and ask if they have any closing thoughts.
“No-shows” may happen if a Speaker has entered the queue and then decided to leave the site. If the Speaker doesn’t respond, that’s ok, just go ahead and select another person from the queue.
Video & Audio-Only Listening Sessions
We encourage you to utilize Listenly’s video and audio-only capabilities. While the messaging feature is designed for users that need moment-to-moment support, the video feature is targeted more towards long-form Listening Sessions. A Listening Session is a time for listening partners to go deep with one another. These typically last for about 30 minutes. Speakers may also choose to join with audio-only enabled so the experience feels more like a phone call.
Listening Sessions may either be scheduled in advance, or on the fly when you want to take a text conversation deeper. To begin a Listening Session, get consent from the Speaker, then select “Start Call” in the upper right corner of the Messages screen. This will invite your partner into a video chat. As the Listening Session begins, you may find it helpful to start a timer so you can track time without looking at a clock.
At the 25-minute mark, you will begin winding down the conversation and ask your Speaker for any final reflections. (See section below on closing the Listening Session.)
Setting The Container
Whether over text or video, it is your job as a Listener to establish the “container” in which the conversation takes place. It may be the Speaker’s first time using the platform, so they will be looking to you to guide them. For many people, it takes a lot of courage to ask for support, and simply starting the conversation is a big step. Start off with a warm greeting, welcoming them to Listenly and thanking them for being there.
Setting the container also means that you establish the context and ground rules so the Speaker knows what to expect.
Let the Speaker know that anything they say on Listenly is confidential and that if for some reason you feel unable to support them, you’ll be referring them either to another Listener or to an outside resource (See section below on referring out). Set the time container of 30 minutes, and let the Speaker know they can use as much or as little of that time as they need. Inform the Speaker that this is a non-judgemental space where they are free to bring their whole, messy, human self. And that you are there just to listen. And always make sure you get “buy-in” from the Speaker on the context you’ve laid out. An easy to get this is asking, “How’s that sound? Any questions before we begin?”
Once you have verbal confirmation, you can proceed.
We recommend you begin with an open-ended question, inviting the Speaker to share whatever is on their mind, such as “What’s big for you right now?”
Over both text and video chat, Listeners utilize a collection of Deep Listening skills to draw the speaker out, creating a safe space for vulnerability and connection. In any given conversation you may use some or all of these techniques. It is not a checklist, but rather a toolkit for whatever the situation requires.
1 - Questions
Open-ended questions are a good way to draw the Speaker out and help them dig deeper into their own experience. Clarifying questions are also a good way for you to verify your understanding and demonstrate interest in what the Speaker is saying.
What and How questions are typically better than Why questions, which can feel accusatory. For example, “Why did you do that?” can make someone feel defensive, whereas “How did you feel when you did that?” is more open-ended and receptive.
2 - Restating
Deep Listening is an active process. Although the Speaker will do the majority of the talking, as the Listener you remain engaged in the conversation by occasionally reflecting back what the Speaker has said in your own words. Restating not only shows that you understand, but by paraphrasing in your own words demonstrates you are able to empathize with their experience.
4 - Sharing Experience
Sharing an anecdote from your own life is another way to show the Speaker that you can relate to what they are going through. However, be careful to use this technique sparingly, otherwise the attention of the conversation will shift to you instead of the Speaker.
5 - Silence
Oftentimes as the Listener, you do not need to say anything at all. Resist the temptation to fill in silences with compulsive conversation. If it seems that the Speaker is working through something, try allowing them a few moments to themselves. Quietly holding space is still performing a valuable service.
6 - When Not to Give Advice
Listening Sessions are unique in that it is a space where we refrain from giving advice. Your job as the Listener is to be a sounding board that helps the Speaker process their emotions and come to their own conclusions. At the end of the session the Speaker may not have solved whatever problem they came with, and that is OK. The act of sharing is valuable in itself.
In addition to Why questions and unwanted advice there are other modes of communication that can impede connection and cause a Speaker to close up. Although you want to gently challenge the Speaker to explore their own feelings, avoid “digging”, or asking probing questions when it is clear the person does not want to go there.
Do your best not to interrupt when the Speaker is talking. And defer judgement: Listening Sessions are a space to be receptive to the Speaker’s experience. Listening and holding space does not necessarily mean that you agree, only that you respect the other person for the complete human being they are.
Closing A Listening Session
When the Listening Session has reached 25 minutes, let the Speaker know there is about 5 minutes left. A Listening Session may follow a natural flow and end prior to the allotted 30-minute time container.
When sessions are closing, thank the Speaker and ask them a reflective question such as, “How was this for you?” This may help shift their attention into a more reflective state and prepare them to leave the container.
If the Listener is in the middle of an intense or emotional experience near the end of the 30-minute time container, you may want to extend it for a few minutes so it can reach a more natural stopping point. It’s useful to name this to the Listener and extend a specific amount of time. This could look like: “I’m noticing we’re close to the end of our 30 minutes and I don’t want to end this abruptly. So I’m extending another 5 minutes.”
Referrals For Additional Support
Occasionally as a Listener you will encounter a situation that you do not feel equipped to handle. A Speaker may be experiencing significant emotional issues, request professional advice, or contact you on the platform frequently or say inappropriate things. If this occurs, end the conversation and contact Listenly Support at firstname.lastname@example.org
If your Speaker mentions having suicidal thoughts or intends to harm themselves, refer them to the Suicide Prevention Lifeline and end the conversation.
Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
In addition to the guide above, Listenly has developed a proprietary form of deep listening that we call PACE, which stands for Present, Authentic, Curious and Empathetic. Learn more about PACE Listening here.