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Making the Most of the Telephone Network

By: Dale S. Brown

How can you get the information that you need on the telephone? Tracking down the facts that will help your child can be difficult detective work. You may feel driven from place to place with everybody seemingly "on the other line" or "out of the office for a moment."

When you finally reach your contact, he or she may be impatient or uncooperative. How can you get these cold, professional voices to help you and your child. I have some suggestions. But first, let me tell you how it feels to be on the other side of the telephone by describing a few minutes of life a year after I founded the Association of Learning Disabled Adults (ALDA).

In those days, I often put down the phone exasperated, only to have it ring again. I was frustrated. After founding the ALDA, my life became one round of constant phone calls from anguished parents wondering what to do for their young adult children. It was pointed out to me that the office phones were not a hotline. One secretary had threatened to quit because so many people who called me refused to leave messages and would call again and again until I could be reached.

To make matters more complicated, most parents didn't really seem to want information. Their major need was to talk to someone about their deep frustration. They had been treated unfairly and had seen their children suffer. On the one hand, their determination and persistence were impressive, and nobody had really listened to them. On the other hand, it was important that I do the work my employer was paying me to do and it was impossible for me to be everyone's counselor.

One day after several hours of listening to harrowing stories, I answered the phone and identified my organization in my most businesslike voice.

"Hello, my name is Mary Jane Smith," said the voice at the other end of the line. "How are you?" "Fine," I said wearily.

"I know you are busy, so I'll try not to take up too much of your time. I heard you were one of the town's experts on learning disabled adults."

"Thank you," I said, my spirits brightening slightly at the praise.

"'It's about my son, John. He has a learning disability and has been living at home for the past three years since he graduated from high school. We've been unable to get him a job and I'm looking for some sort of structured program for learning disabled people his age. Do you have any ideas?"

"'Frankly, there are almost no programs of that sort," I replied. "But why don't you tell me a little about his learning disability, and maybe we can come up with some solutions."

Mary Jane Smith spoke about her son's situation, pausing often and letting me speak when I had ideas. She also asked me several specific questions.

"I can see there are no programs, but are there any psychiatrists or psychologists who might work with him?" she asked.

I did have one name for her and she thanked me and hung up. Mary Jane got the information she needed. Why? What distinguished her from the many parents who hung up frustrated?

Here are some suggestions that Mary Jane and many other resourceful information gatherers follow.

  • Realize that the person on the other end of the line is a human being. The person is not a faceless bureaucrat or enemy to be outwitted. Your goal is to establish rapport with the person and tell them what you need.
  • The person on the other end of the line is not your counselor. Choose what you say carefully and listen to the responses. Get your social support elsewhere. Here are some ideas for social support.

    Join a local support group for parents of children who have learning disabilities - a chapter of the Association for Children and Adults with Learning Disabilities, for example. Make efforts to meet other parents who might become your friends. In order to get support you need to give support. Listen with interest to their situation. Then request they spend equal time listening to yours. Call your local hotline and tell your story. Many communities have it phone bank staffed with volunteers trained to be supportive listeners.

  • Decide what you want to know. What information do you need? Make a list of questions. Before calling, get as much information as you can from other sources. For example, if you need to find a school for your 5-year-old with a learning disability, contact your local board of education and private schools for information.
  • Find out whom you need to talk to. Check who is the appropriate person and ask for him or her by name.
  • If the person isn't in, leave a message or find out when he or she will return and call back. If the person is on the other line, ask to be put on hold until the person is free. Have something to read in case you have to wait a while. If you leave a message, include the reason for your call, your phone number and when you can be reached. It is impolite to call every hour or so. If the person doesn't return your call in 24 hours, then you may call back.
  • Begin the conversation by asking, "How are you?" Then inquire if this is a good time to talk. If you can say some thing nice about the person, then do so. If the person seems receptive, you can even try some small talk.
  • State your questions and then describe your problem in five sentences or less. You may need to prepare your statement beforehand. Let the person ask questions. Don't present a long, detailed description at once. The person should be able to glean the information at his or her own pace. Give a brief answer to each question and allow for follow-ups.

    Keep them talking. The more the person talks, the more likely he or she will come up with solutions. Even if the advice seems incorrect, it's important not to criticize or contradict. More questions may secure better answers. For example, Cindy called. The high school's assistant principal to find out if there was a social skills program for her son who was often rejected by his peers. The assistant principal spoke glowingly about the school's drama department, sports program and dances. Cindy wanted to scream at him, "Yes, but those activities are for children who are already popular." Instead, she listened with interest and repeated her original question about programs for teenagers who did not fit in with the high school's organized programs. Finally, he mentioned that the drama coach had a child with a disability and wondered if he would be willing to pay some special attention to her son. He also thought that one of the school counselors might be interested in starting such a group.

  • If the person refers you to someone else, ask for information about the person and use it in your second contact. So when Cindy called the school counselor, she said, "Tom Smith, the assistant principal' told me that you were the best counselor for helping students who don't get along with teachers."
  • At the end of the conversation, say, "Thank you." If the person spent a long time helping you, write a note. That person probably receives little appreciation and your note will mean a lot. The person will probably be more likely to help the next time you call.

If you follow these guidelines, you are likely to find that some of the faceless voices at the other end of the phone are giving and helpful people.

Connections, April 1997 Reprinted with permission