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The Importance of Listening

Morgan Stanley volunteers at Childline, the NSPCC’s 24/7 helpline, share the intensity of simply listening to children calling for support beyond their families.

At work, Catriona Shannon and Adam Clevenger are used to being on numerous calls a day—most of which are routine, with some challenging conversations along the way.

You have to learn not to assume how the children are feeling, or to suggest how they ought to be feeling.

But none ever approaches the intensity of even a single call that she and Clevenger field during their shifts at Childline, when they staff the phones as volunteers at the Shoreditch headquarters of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), Morgan Stanley’s nonprofit partner in the UK.

“When a call comes in from a child, I'm one of the first voices they may hear,” says Clevenger, who in his day job at Morgan Stanley is a foreign-exchange and derivatives trader, and as a volunteer has worked the NSPCC’s Childline switchboard for the past four years. “I have to make sure I sound warm and kind but also professional. It’s important that they feel like they’re in a good pair of hands from their first contact with the helpline.”

‘Listening Is Essential’

Shannon and Clevenger are among hundreds of firm employees who volunteer at the NSPCC in all kinds of roles. Dozens will be at the firm’s garden for the Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show this spring. This year’s garden, Morgan Stanley’s fourth, aims to raise funds and awareness for the NSPCC and the critical work it’s doing for abused children.

At the call center, for most of her four hours every Sunday afternoon, Shannon, a Vice President in Morgan Stanley’s Institutional Equities Marketing division in London, mostly sits and listens. “With a child, active listening is essential. It's really important just to be quiet and let them speak,” she says. “We think empathy is instinctive, but really, it's a skill. You have to learn not to assume how the children are feeling, or to suggest how they ought to be feeling.” Taking a deep breath, Shannon adds: “There are no easy fixes, but we focus on equipping each child with the tools to be able to come to decisions themselves. We seek to empower them by helping them see that they have options—and to feel less alone.”

The NSPCC’s 24/7 Childline is available to anyone in the UK under the age of 19 who is in need. Clevenger knew about it, but he had envisioned a small office with some calls coming in every now and then. He was awed when he first walked into the Childline center to find a room “about half the size of a basketball court” with as many as 60 people fielding nonstop calls around the clock.

‘Someone’s Got to Be There’

And then there he was on the switchboard himself. “It’s so hard for these children to get to a point where they can actually be ready to get something off their chest and call up a stranger, but that’s where I come in,” says Clevenger.  “I have to essentially say, 'You've done the right thing, we can really help, I'm going to put you through to someone you can talk to—' and there you go."

Sometimes, Clevenger’s shifts overlap with Shannon’s and he ends up switching over a caller in need to her line. “I was really surprised by the range of problems kids call up about,” Shannon says. “And, actually, some of the most difficult calls are about bullying. Once there was a time when you could at least leave the bullies behind when you go home. But with social media there's no escape."

Neither feels he or she can leave those Childline experiences at the front door when they get home. At the same time, they both know that what they do is critical. “I know people who say, 'Oh, I just couldn't do that, I just care too much about kids,' ” Shannon says. “But the fact is: Someone’s got to be there in your life to help and listen, and I’m so glad I get a chance to be someone who can listen to these children.”

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