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Power Tools for Telephone Helping

from LEAVEN, Vol. 30 No. 4, July-August 1994, pp. 61-2
by Pat Kufeldt
Burke, Virginia, USA

My friend Angie lamented that telephone helping hadn't turned out to be the way she had imagined. Before being accredited six months ago, she had looked forward to receiving breastfeeding and Group information calls. Lately she dreaded the sound of the telephone.

When I asked what caused this drastic change in attitude, she said, "When the phone rings at my house, chaos reigns! The baby cries, the doorbell rings, the toddler climbs on the table, the dog starts barking, and I can't find my pen. Honestly, if I were a mother on the other end of the line, I'd give up all hope of getting my questions answered!"

As I heard Angie talking I felt distressed. Telephone helping is a positive experience for most Leaders. Many times we hang up the phone and think, "Yes, that's why I'm a La Leche League Leader. I really helped that mother." I wanted Angie to share that same positive experience. After all, that's one reason she became a Leader.

I asked Angie how she organized her telephone work. "Organized? Right! I can't even organize my laundry!" she said. "Well, I do have a Leader's Log. I know that's important. I'm just never sure where it is. And my pen never stays with it"

As we continued to talk, it appeared that Angie's problem had several dimensions: creating a central "office" area, getting a handle on the amount of time spent on League calls, and encouraging a calmer family atmosphere during telephone conversations.

Happily, all solutions were within our grasp as I reached for my trusty LEADER'S HANDBOOK. The HANDBOOK is a Leader's "toolbox." It lists material to keep close at hand.

  • Leader's Log
  • Pen
  • THE WOMANLY ART OF BREASTFEEDING
  • Medical Question Forms
  • Area Directory
  • Meeting Information
  • LLLI Information Sheets
  • Stationery (paper, envelopes, and stamps)

To this list I would add THE BREASTFEEDING ANSWER BOOK. I like to have stamped postcards handy, too. I use them to write short reminders and notes on the run. I don't feel the need to sit down and fill up a whole page!

Some Leaders store all of this in a desk drawer or on a shelf. I like to use a box. It's portable, so I can take my "desk" with me to the laundry room, the children's play area, or out to the patio. Add a portable telephone or one with an extra long cord to this list and I'm totally organized anytime, any place.

The solution to tending to the little ones is not as simple. Some Leaders squirrel away special toys and activities for use during telephone calls. Others have healthy snacks on hand. The HANDBOOK also suggests:

  • Magnetic refrigerator letters
  • Children's tapes or videos
  • Playdough or clay
  • Water play in the kitchen

For some tots, the ring of a telephone signals "anything goes." That seemed to be the case for Angie. She said the phone was like Pavlov's bell. "It rings and Joe wants to nurse, Joanna decides to empty a box of raisins into the magazine rack...."

I reminded Angie that no one expected her to put her children "on hold" while she tended to the phone. Talking on the phone too often or too long was a sure way of increasing negative behavior, too. She was heartened when I said that sometimes the best thing to do was take the mother's number and call her back when the children were settled into quiet activities. Actually it might be reassuring for the caller to know that she had reached a "real live mother" with a family just like hers!

"I really hadn't thought of that," Angie said. "I always feel obligated to answer every call right when it comes in. I'm afraid that a mother might feel hurt or give up breastfeeding before I can get back to her!"

I was impressed with Angie's commitment and agreed that emergency telephone calls should be handled as soon as possible, if not by her, by another Leader. I pointed out that there were times when calling back was not only appropriate but necessary. It's not uncommon to return calls that occur at busy family times or need extra research. I've often told a mother that I didn't know the answer to a question, but that I'd find out and get back to her.

Angie seemed relieved that she need not be at the beck and call of her telephone. Now she realized she could fit in phone helping around her needs as well as her family's. "Okay, I get all that about pacing myself, my family, and my time. I can select which calls need to be attended to immediately and which ones can be delayed. But I'm still afraid that I'm turning the caller off because I don't sound professional. Do you have any tips about that?"

I explained that no one expected her to sound like anything other than what she was, a capable, knowledgeable volunteer who had successfully breastfed and believed it was best for mother and baby. After all, if a mother had wanted to speak to someone with medical credentials, she would have called her doctor. I went on to relate that there are a few ideas that make any communication with a mother come across as warm and caring. Once again I flipped through my LEADER'S HANDBOOK and listed six suggestions for building immediate rapport:

  • Take a deep breath and smile. This will give a welcoming sound to your voice.
  • Respond to the mother's greeting in a friendly, interested tone of voice. Saying something like, "Yes, this is La Leche League. My name is ______________. How can I help you?" lets the caller know that not only has she reached the right number, but there is someone there prepared to listen to her.
  • Express interest in her and her situation. "What did you name your baby? What a beautiful name."
  • Be genuine. Don't copy another Leader's style. Use what works for you.
  • Use the mother's and baby's names while talking to her.
  • Stop talking and listen.

Angie looked at me in amazement. "Is that all? You make it sound so easy. I can do those things standing on my head!"

Well, I haven't seen Angie standing on her head lately, but I did run into her and asked how the telephone helping was working out. "It's going great! Once I got organized and gave myself permission to call mothers back, things got much easier. I'm more relaxed and I make sure I smile a lot. I'm really interested in helping these women and I think that comes through on the phone. One day last week someone even called back to thank me. She said, 'If it wasn't for you, I’m afraid I would have given up breastfeeding.' I can't ask for more than that."

Sounds as though Angie is enjoying this special part of her La Leche League work. With a few "power tools" she gained skills that brought her the satisfaction she had hoped to achieve.

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