How to provide emotional support remotely

Support and befriending is needed by friends, family members, or those in our community that are isolated or lonely. This post gives you some ideas on how to give remote assistance effectively.

What is remote assistance?
It’s where you offer friendship/listening via phone, videoconferencing (Skype, Zoom etc), email, Facebook, text, or letter, or a combination of these.

What kind of support might you offer?
You could provide a range of ways including a short conversation every day or every few days with one or more people, or longer daily or weekly conversations, or a mix of phone/video chat and follow ups with email or WhatsApp chat.

Who could you support?

It might be someone you already know – a friend or relative; or someone you don’t know yet like a member of your community or someone identified by a charity in need of assistance (e.g. a person who’s shielding, a housebound older person, or an International Student who’s a long way from home).

Why do you want to give support?

Before volunteering to help others it’s crucial to reflect on why you want to be a befriender.  You may want to reassure those living alone, reach out to others, make a difference to your community, or just do a kind thing. It may be you want company yourself, or to pass the time. Look at the ‘do and don’t’ section below to help you decide whether providing emotional support for others is right for you at this time.

What can you offer?

You may be able to provide friendship, reduce loneliness, or enable others to access vital services.  Note if there are particular things you could offer. You might speak different languages (including signing). Enjoy reading stories. Have an extensive knowledge of a particular hobby or sport. Be a really good listener. Equally having no skills except a willingness to listen and be guided by whatever an isolated person wants to talk about is important. 

Check your limits and boundaries

Before befriending and supporting others, be a friend to yourself. Think about your own mental and physical health, energy and personal circumstances (e.g. your work situation or what equipment you have to help with contacting others such as a pc or mobile phone). How much energy will you have to speak to and support other people? Be especially careful if you have been recently bereaved or are struggling with depression or anxiety. You may want to assist others, but equally may be in need of care yourself. If that is the case, seek help and once you’re feeling stronger, volunteer. Your skills will always be welcome, but you don’t want to be supporting people who either make you feel worse, or you cause distress to.

Calculate how much time do you have to offer per day, week, fortnight or month? It may help to break down what time you have overall per month then use that to assess your weekly availability. Over what time period do you expect to be able to offer support? Are you able to commit to supporting someone long term or only as a one off?

What other commitments do you have? Are you working from home or outside it? Looking after children or other dependents? What other chores do you need to do? When are you most likely to be available? Is your schedule fixed or flexible?

Having thought about your responsibilities, energy and circumstances, what are you realistically able to offer? (Noting you may need time to train yourself to offer support, reflect on support given, identify topics to talk about, report who you’ve spoken to if volunteering for a third party, and have down time where you relax or decompress after giving support to others).

Are there any particular topics you’d prefer not to talk about? (e.g. not everyone is able to talk comfortably about personal/sensitive topics).

Are you good at letting other people take their turn? Some people may want a call from you to hear a friendly voice, but don’t necessarily want to hear you give a lecture!

Do you have the specific technology to deliver support as is needed. For example if you only have a phone but Skype is required, you may need to rethink who you can support.

Would you prefer to speak to one person several times per week? Several people across the week? Shorter calls where you check-in that people are doing okay or whether they need anything? Or longer calls where you talk in-depth. It’s realistic to support more people for short calls, fewer people or just one person who requires longer calls.

Being clear on what you can give means you won’t overstretch yourself or commit to things you cannot deliver. You can always increase or decrease what you are offering, but it is important to be realistic so those you are supporting know what to expect from you.

What might you offer?

There are lots of ways to support others remotely – which of the following appeal to you?

Chat – talking about what’s in the news; discussing what’s going on in the neighbourhood; learn about people’s hobbies and interests, pets, arts and culture; sharing jokes or stories; or talking about what’s on TV.  People might also want to reminisce or make plans for the future.

Befriending – providing companionship for someone who’s shielding, isolated or feeling lonely.

Reading – some people may appreciate you reading them news stories, short stories, a chapter from a book each time you talk, weather reports, or gardening tips.  Or they may want to share that with you.

Listening – some people don’t particularly want answers, but would like someone to listen to how they are feeling, their worries, memories of a loved one, or their views on the world.

Debate – being home alone can be dull and enlivened by having the chance to hear about and discuss world news and politics.

Connecting – sharing interests, beliefs, finding things you have in common.

Sourcing information – you might be asked to find a recipe, track down a piece of music, or identify local support (e.g. finding a phone number from the council’s website, or connecting the person you’re talking to with someone that can do their shopping).

Playing games, answering quizzes, or solving puzzles together.

Spiritual support – sharing religious texts, prayer, song, or other faith-based conversations.

Scam busting – alerting people to potential scams or crime risks in their area. Or supporting those who have been exploited or scammed.

Delivering Mental Health First Aid – this isn’t counselling but it is mental health support for those that need it (and only to be delivered if you have been specifically trained and approved to do so).

Signposting to help – if people are struggling it isn’t your place to solve their problems, heal or cure them. Instead you should be directing them to people and organisations that are best placed to assist. That might be their GP/Family Doctor, NHS website, pharmacy, local council, MP, or charities that could help with their health, rights, finances, housing, wellbeing etc.

If you’re offering people support remotely you should be prepared for any of the above to feature, but if there are particular areas you are drawn to or would like to avoid, this may help you further establish boundaries with people you are supporting. For example you might not want to discuss politics with a relative, if you aren’t religious then a faith-based conversation may be difficult, but you might want to hear the life stories of your older neighbour.

Conversation topics will be established by the person you’re remotely supporting wants and what you are comfortable talking about. This may emerge naturally, but you may find it helpful to set out what you can/can’t offer.

Your wellbeing

While supporting others, it’s important to look after yourself.  General safety pointers you might want to follow include:

Do….

  • Look at your reasons for wanting to offer support, being really clear about your motives.
  • Seek training on offering remote support, either informally by reading up on being a good listener/peer supporter or through training offered by charities you volunteer for (searching for ‘befriender’ online will bring up lots of guides/ideas).
  • Talk to others who are already offering remote emotional support, to get some realistic ideas about what to expect before signing up.
  • Be really clear on how much time you have to give.
  • Have a mechanism for you to offload, be that writing how you feel; switching off after a call with something you find relaxing; or talking through with someone trustworthy about any calls that leave you feeling sad or otherwise emotionally drained.
  • If volunteering for a charity, follow their instructions and guidance, including record keeping and reporting.
  • Include time within your week to think of things you can share with the person you are supporting.
  • Have calls at set times when you know you aren’t going to be interrupted.
  • Reflect on what you are getting from giving remote support. This should be something you find enjoyable, inspiring, and that makes you feel useful. Note if these feelings change.

Don’t….

  • Put your home address, phone number or email in a public domain.
  • Buy additional kit to make calls if volunteering for a charity, they should provide/cover the costs of this.
  • Give money or your bank details to people you don’t know, no matter how heart-breaking their circumstances are. Instead refer them to a reputable organisation that can support them (e.g. Foodbank).
  • Use your position to sell things to those you’ve been assigned to support.
  • Offer medical advice or diagnoses, encourage people to stop taking medication/discontinue treatment, or discourage people from seeking medical advice.
  • Charge people for your time – you are volunteering to listen and chat.
  • Pretend to have qualifications you don’t possess (e.g. medic, therapist, lawyer etc).
  • Breach confidentiality. What you talk about remains with you and the person you are supporting and any third party additionally supervising/helping you. People’s stories and especially their struggles are not for you to share on or offline.
  • Gossip. If you are supporting more than one person don’t gossip about them to one another. Avoid getting involved in other people’s disputes.
  • Push people to divulge information they are uncomfortable discussing, or be pushed yourself to share things you’d prefer to keep private.
  • Pay to be a volunteer or to be connected with people. Charities will support you to do this, but will not expect you to pay to meet others.

How to be a good listener

Amaze has a short video outlining key communication skills

Other issues to anticipate

If calls are abusive or threatening

You don’t have to give a reason, apologise for ending a call, or make excuses. Either end the call without any conversation. Or say “I don’t want to hear this” and end the call. If you are supporting a friend/relative who has become unpleasant you may decide to block their number. If it’s someone you’ve been assigned via a charity or local group let the group leader/charity supervisor know what has happened. You don’t need to deal with the abusive person further.

If the person you are talking to reveals they are in danger

Don’t panic. Let them tell you what is going on, and make notes if possible/appropriate. If they are in immediate danger, call the emergency services. If they are disclosing abuse you should make it clear you believe them and encourage them to take steps to leave. There is advice on how to do this here Seek advice for yourself from external organisations to ensure you are doing the right thing to help the person, also allowing said organisations to investigate and take action rather than you doing this (e.g. a vulnerable older person is best supported by adult social care and their GP).

If you are getting too involved

Finding yourself regularly thinking about the person you’re supporting, wanting to know they are okay and looking forward to talking to them are all understandable reactions and may simply indicate a new or stronger bond you’ve made. If, however, you are obsessing over them, calling outside agreed times, taking over decisions they’d prefer to make themselves, or otherwise interfering, it may be time to have a break or back off. If you are volunteering for an organisation they will be used to people developing feelings when befriending so you could ask them on ways to manage those appropriately. This includes support for you if the person you’ve befriended no longer needs your help, or if they have died.

You could cause harm, not be a help if you…

  • have unaddressed issues or trauma that you are seeking to address by supporting others.
  • have strong beliefs you want to share with others regardless of whether they wish to hear them, or that you persist in sharing after being told to stop.
  • want to share anti-science or anti-health ideas that could cause people physical harm (e.g. telling them not to vaccinate their children, or to ignore medical advice on staying safe against Coronavirus).
  • are involved with a MLM (multi level marketing) sales programme and want to access people to buy from/sell for you.
  • want to fix, change, convert or cure people.
  • aren’t a trained therapist or counsellor, but you’d like to be one and see this as a chance to gain access to vulnerable people.

Before you make your first contact

Check your mental health, and know where to go if you need mental health support.

Identify ways to calm yourself, if needed.

Be aware of places to signpost people to if they need help

Do a practice call with a friend and get them to feedback on how it felt. This also allows you to test out whatever systems you’ll be using for emotional support/befriending.

Places where you could volunteer

Re-engage

Silverline

Letter Link (write to prisoners)

Royal Voluntary Service

Good Sam (NHS volunteers, currently full but can keep checking)

Talking Newspapers

For other ways to be a befriender look for charities covering topics that interest you, or that are local to you. They will advertise details of volunteering opportunities.

You’re matched!
Either a friend/relative is now going to be getting a regular call from you, or someone who you don’t yet know who’ll be chatting with you soon. For your first session agree who to alert if your call falls through and alternative ways to connect if possible. Test that whatever means of connecting you’re using is working. Make your introductions, tell them about you and find out about them. Find out what they’d like from future calls and explain what you can offer (you might want to set this out in an email, letter or text first or it may be decided for you by an organisation you’re volunteering for).

Have your chat!

Arrange your next call.

You can then review and decide if it worked, making any changes as required.

Enjoy!

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