Configuring the caller in ambiguous encounters: Volunteer handling of calls to Samaritans emotional support services


  • Kristian Pollock University of Nottingham
  • John Moore University of Wisconsin
  • Catherine Coveney University of Warwick
  • Sarah Armstrong University of Nottingham



active listening, helplines, negative attribution, Samaritans, self-protection, suicide, volunteering


This paper discusses volunteer strategies for handling and assessing calls to Samaritans emotional support services for the suicidal and despairing. It presents findings from the qualitative components of a two year mixed methods study based on an online caller survey, branch observations and interviews with volunteers and callers throughout the UK. A thematic analysis of the qualitative data analysis was undertaken using the principle of constant comparison. Many calls fell beyond the primary remit of a crisis service, and called for rapid attribution and assessment. Uncertainty about identifying ‘good’ calls and recognizing those which were not caused difficulty, frustration and negative attribution towards some callers. This paper presents our analysis of volunteers’ accounts of how they configure the caller in intrinsically uncertain and ambiguous encounters, and how such strategies relate to the formal principles of unconditional support and non-judgemental active listening espoused by the organization. Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License

Author Biographies

Kristian Pollock, University of Nottingham

Kristian Pollock received her Ph.D in Medical Anthropology from the University of Cambridge and is currently a Senior Research Fellow in Sue Ryder Care Centre for the Study of Supportive, Palliative and End of Life Care at the University of Nottingham. Her research interests include public attitudes to death and dying, Advance Care Planning, care and decision making for patients dying in acute hospital wards and communication in medical consultations.

John Moore, University of Wisconsin

John Moore obtained his PhD in Discourse Analysis at Loughborough University, UK. He is currently Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin, USA. John has a background in qualitative psychology and social interaction with a particular focus on workplace interactions. Recent work has focussed on how institutional concerns such as advice provision and emotional support are managed by service providers and how empathy is achieved in interaction.

Catherine Coveney, University of Warwick

Catherine Coveney obtained her PhD in Science and Society at Nottingham University and is currently a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Sociology at Warwick University. Her research interests lie in sociology of mental health and illness, particularly the use of new and existing technologies for ‘enhancement’ purposes, including the medical and non-medical use of sleep drugs.

Sarah Armstrong, University of Nottingham

Sarah Armstrong has a background in medical statistics and quantitative research methods and experience of designing and analysing a wide range of health services research studies. She is Director of the East Midlands NIHR Research Design Service based at Nottingham University



How to Cite

Pollock, K., Moore, J., Coveney, C., & Armstrong, S. (2013). Configuring the caller in ambiguous encounters: Volunteer handling of calls to Samaritans emotional support services. Communication and Medicine, 9(2), 113–123.