Elements of effective texting?: Here’s six tips

Making A Call

by Jean Rhodes

Although older generations may feel more comfortable picking up the phone or sending an email, teens are far more likely to connect with their friends over text. Indeed, the average teen sends over 65 texts per day. There may be benefits to sharing feelings over texts. Texting emotional content forces the sender to condense their feelings and, in doing so, may have therapeutic value. Gregory points to work by James Pennebaker and others that shows that writing can be therapeutic, distancing the person from their intense feelings and potentially impulsive action. Moreover, texting fits with youth’s busy schedules and are more likely to be opened–in fact more than 98% of teens texts are opened, four times the rate of emails.  “If you’re a parent,” she notes, “you know that, even if your son does not text you back about where he is, he has read your message. If you are a distressed teen or a counsellor, you know that what you say will be read.”

In a recent New Yorker article, writer Alice Gregory describes Crisis Text Line,  a service for youth who are in need of support. Run by Nancy Lublin, Crisis Text Line is a national 24/7 crisis-intervention hotline that connects trained volunteers with youth exclusively through text messaging. As Gregory notes, many teens suffer depression and suicide ranks third amongst causes of death in this age group. And,

The service, which receives a remarkable 15,000 texts a day, also fits with teens needs for privacy, control, and familiarity. Teens can type STOP to end conversations, and the interface has the look and feel of Facebook. But what was most impressive about the service is the content and intensity of the volunteer counsellor training. The field of mentoring has a lot to learn from some of its features, particularly as it bears on how we might better connect with teens through texts:

1. Immediacy:  Counsellors on duty write back within 5 minutes.

2. Attunement: An introductory message from a counsellor includes a casual greeting and a question about why the texter is writing in. If the texter’s first message is substantive (“My so-called boyfriend is drunk and won’t stop yelling at me”), the counsellor echoes the language in order to elicit additional details (“I’m so sorry to hear that. Can you tell me a little more about what your so-called boyfriend is saying?”). If the incoming message is vague (“Life sucks. I’m freaking out”), the reply will be more open-ended, while gently pressing for greater specificity (“So what’s going on tonight?”). An average exchange takes place over a little more than an hour, longer if there is the risk of suicide.

3. Patience: Counsellors are trained to put texters at ease and not to jump too quickly into a problem-solving mode. Open-ended questions are good; “why” questions are bad. Also bad: making assumptions about the texter’s gender or sexual orientation, sounding like a robot, using language that a young person might not know. Techniques that are encouraged include validation (“What a tough situation”); “tentafiers” (“Do you mind if I ask you . . . ”); strength identification (“You’re a great brother for being so worried about him”); and empathetic responses (“It sounds like you’re feeling anxious because of all these rumors”). The implicit theory is that in a conversation people are naturally inclined to fill silences.

4. Reassurance: It is important to type carefully. In text messages sent to friends, typos can be an indication of intimacy. But a typo appearing on the cell-phone screen of a distressed teen-ager can undermine the sense of authority he’s looking for. “You have to train yourself not to hit that return button automatically,” a sixty-year-old counsellor from California told me. (Crisis Text Line counsellors are free to give a real or assumed first name to people who text in.) It is also regarded as a mistake to embrace teen-age patois too enthusiastically. One volunteer told me that she tries not to use acronyms. “I sometimes worry that it would come across as too ‘Oh, I got you!’ ” she said. Neutral language allows the texter to feel anonymous. These people have contacted a stranger for a reason. They aren’t looking for friendship.

5. Listening: Often, the conversations are about minor-seeming problems—fights with friends, academic pressure from parents—and the bar for helpfulness is quite low. “A lot of times, when chatting with young people, it’s clear that they just need someone to listen to them,” one counsellor told me. “Sometimes it’s obvious. They’ll say, ‘Thanks for listening. Nobody ever does that,’ and at other times it’s less explicit; they just want to get everything out, and they provide you with a very, very detailed account.”

6. Validation: Counsellors are trained to deploy language that at first seems inflammatory: “You must be devastated” is a common refrain; so is “That sounds like torture.” The idea is to validate texters’ feelings and respond in a way that doesn’t belittle them…. It takes practice to tell someone who is suffering that he has a real problem, and that, though things may get better, it may not be anytime soon.”

Also relevant to the field of mentoring was the discussion of the benefits of texting with a teen, a topic we have touched on a lot in recent posts.

“Texting has other advantages. The fact that counsellors can work from home while eating Chinese takeout—and can even trade shifts with one another—makes it easier to attract volunteers. More important, from an adult perspective teen-agers can often seem willfully uncommunicative in speech but are forthcoming, even garrulous, when texting. “On the phone, you have to ask a few more questions, sort of explore a little bit more to find out what’s really going on,” Jen James, who works for C.T.L. in Michigan, told me. “With the text line, they are pretty open. They just come out and tell you and want to talk about it.” Research bears out this observation. According to Fred Conrad, a cognitive psychologist and the director of the Program in Survey Methodology at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, people are “more likely to disclose sensitive information via text messages than in voice interviews.” To those who didn’t grow up texting, this seems counterintuitive. Texts are a written record, after all, and what if the wrong person saw them? But, in practical terms, text messaging affords a level of privacy that the human voice makes impossible. If you’re hiding from an abusive relative or you just don’t want your classmates to know how overwhelmed you feel about applying to college, a text message, even one sent in public, is safer than a phone call. What’s more, tears go undetected by the person you’ve reached out to, and you don’t have to hear yourself say aloud your most shameful secrets”

It was also interesting to see how intensive the online training is. The course is 34 hours long, over a period of 7 weeks, culminating with a 25 minute one-on-one interview. The course is designed with distance learning features, such as games, role playing, online quizzes, videos, etc. Mentoring Central, shares similar features.

Granted, not all youth in mentoring program are in crisis, or even struggling. But we have much to learn from the approach and training that is being deployed by this exceptional program.