Dealing with customers and clients can be stressful and emotionally taxing. But what if the clients who contact you are kids, and the only things they want are love and support? Meet Hilary Henriques, phone counselor and founder of the National Association for the Children of Alcoholics. Hilary shares how she supports children with difficult home lives, and how she takes care of her own emotional well-being when dealing with so much heartbreak.
Featured in this episode:
Founder of the National Association for the Children of Alcoholics (NACOA), Hilary Henriques
TAMARA STANNERS: It's bedtime for a little girl near Bristol in England. She's settling in for a story, but not from her parents. In fact, this little girl is all alone in her room, and the story comes to her over a phone line, from the voice of a woman she's never met. And that's what's happening on Relate this week.
I'm Tamara Stanners, and this is Relate by Zendesk. We look at relationships from every angle. And today's relationship is ... Well, it's complicated. Producer Andy Shepherd is here with me this week, and Andy, I want you to give us the lay of the land on this one.
ANDY SHEPPARD: Well, I think this story is kind of about taking care of yourself, even when you're trying to help other people. You know, you can't help anyone else when you're in trouble yourself. So, this starts with this bedtime story:
HILLARY ENRIQUEZ: You know, I could hear her breathing getting quieter, and just sort of started. You know, once upon a time there was a little girl called Lucy, and she had a little dog called Bruno. Bruno and Lucy used to have lovely times in the forest. And then thought she'd probably-
ANDY SHEPPARD: So, this is Hillary Enriquez, and the thing is she's not this little girl's mother. In fact, she's never even seen this girl before.
TAMARA STANNERS: Okay, how does that even work?
ANDY SHEPPARD: Well, Hillary is the founder of this program in the U.K. called the National Association for Children of Alcoholics. They called NACOA for short. And it's this helpline for kids to call when they need someone to talk to.
TAMARA STANNERS: Oh, it sounds amazing, but it also sounds like this story might be a little heart-wrenching. ANDY SHEPPARD: There's definitely some tough stuff here. You know, on the one hand in these calls, like the conversations, are practical.
HILLARY ENRIQUEZ: Have you got enough bed clothes? You guys got enough bed pillows? Have you got enough this? Have you got that? Just real practical things. Have you changed out of your uniform into your nice, snuggly pajamas? Because lots of people-
ANDY SHEPPARD: But on the other hand, it's about connecting deeply with these kids who are in really difficult situations at home.
TAMARA STANNERS: Well, first off, I love the fact that there is this kind of helpline for kids in need. They're getting help. But what about the people providing the help, like Hillary?
ANDY SHEPPARD: Well, my understanding, like any kind of counseling work, it's really rewarding, but it's super-demanding emotionally.
HILLARY ENRIQUEZ: People say to me, "oh my God, I don't know how you do that. I wouldn't know what to say." I quite often will say, "Well, sometimes you don't need to say anything, you just need to listen.
ANDY SHEPPARD: And listening and engaging in these conversations comes naturally to Hillary. She feels that this is something she was destined to do because she grew up in a family where there was alcohol abuse, and she has this one particular memory.
HILLARY ENRIQUEZ: Where I've run out of the house, because my mother's screaming at me, and I get half-way up the lane and I crouch down to make myself as small as I can, and I'm saying to myself, "I will never do this to my children."
ANDY SHEPPARD: And in a way, the kids who call the helpline are her children, I mean, unlike her mother, Hillary's actually providing real comfort to these kids who so desperately need it. And you know, sometimes all that means is something as simple as reading them a bedtime story.
HILLARY ENRIQUEZ: When, so the first started to happen, it just seemed, you know, I knew that this little girl was really tired. And she knew she could go downstairs to get a glass of milk between certain times, but not after, so it was a question of okay, what could we do right now? Okay, "Well have you got your milk?" "Got my milk." "Have you got enough bed clothes?" "Yes, got enough bed clothes." "Have you got this, have you got that?" And then it was, I could hear her breathing getting quieter, and just sort of started. You know, "Once upon a time there was a little girl called Lucy, and she had a little dog called Bruno. Bruno and Lucy used to have lovely times in the forest." And then I thought, she probably said something back to me, and I said, "Oh, yeah. And we've got a cat called Timmy," and it was just a way of getting that child to know she could go to sleep quietly.
TAMARA STANNERS: It really can't be easy to keep yourself emotionally separated from these situations, you know, with these children who need you, and you can't be there. ANDY SHEPPARD: Yeah, well, there was this one caller, who worked her way into Hillary's life in a way that she couldn't have anticipated.
HILLARY ENRIQUEZ: She called from a very early age. She had gone into foster care, after living with her father, who had committed suicide, and her two brothers had committed suicide. So, she was in care, she was in foster care when she started to ring. She was just so vulnerable. And so-
ANDY SHEPPARD: She was angry, too, and for good reason.
HILLARY ENRIQUEZ: Because everyone left her. She started off in a "You're going to leave me as well, so I may as well not talk to you," so it was testy, so to speak, but of course it was because people who she loved, and who loved her, had ultimately left her. So, she had lots of panic attacks, so a lot of the work was about breathing and you know, holding it and then breathing out. So, doing that with her. She cried a lot. The more she got to know us, and knew that we always picked up the phone, we could hear all of her anger and all of her despair. We could hear everything and never put the phone down on her.
TAMARA STANNERS: That is the exact kind of unconditional support that kids like that need, and they need to know that there's somebody there for them, no matter what.
ANDY SHEPPARD: Yeah, exactly. And Hillary became the main person that she called. They had this relationship. The young girl would, she'd call regularly over the years, and Hillary got to know her deepest thoughts. But there's a flipside to this intimacy.
HILLARY ENRIQUEZ: And of course, the more she got to know us, the more she trusted us, the more she sort of started to use us like all of us human beings do, which is you take out the worst behavior on the people you know are going to be there.
TAMARA STANNERS: You know, you always hurt the ones you love.
ANDY SHEPPARD: That's what they say, and it's hard to be ... Like, if you're a parent, even if you're a parent, it's hard to be unconditionally supportive in a situation that's really difficult like that. But then the calls went in this unexpected direction.
HILLARY ENRIQUEZ: She became a little obsessed with the fact that we might disappear, because of course, she thought we were going to disappear because everyone in her life had disappeared. So, she was worried about money, our money, and she would say, "But are you going to have enough money to keep going?" And I think she'd gone onto the website and found the accounts on the the website, which of course it clearly published. And quite frankly, the accounts did look pretty grim, and then she sent us some money, a postal order. I think it was for five pounds.
TAMARA STANNERS: Unbelievable. Selfless, but for good reason.
ANDY SHEPPARD: Yeah, no kidding. Although, Hillary didn't want to accept this money.
HILLARY ENRIQUEZ: That was a really interesting thing, because part of me thought this is changing the relationship.
ANDY SHEPPARD: But the thing is, she couldn't exactly refuse the money, because the girl had sent it through their public donation forum. So, Hillary's a problem solver. She figured out what she would do is set up this regular dedicated call for the girl.
HILLARY ENRIQUEZ: Wednesday afternoons at a certain time, she would call the helpline and it would be put through to me.
ANDY SHEPPARD: And she didn't treat this as helpline time. This was different.
HILLARY ENRIQUEZ: What we would do is I started it so I could tell her about funding, and tell her about what I was doing, so she just didn't have someone wafting her away and saying, "Oh, no, no, no, you can't help."
TAMARA STANNERS: So, she would be then less worried about the helpline disappearing, like everything good in her life had.
ANDY SHEPPARD: Yeah, yeah, exactly. But the thing is, eventually, these two things started to overlap, like the calls with Hillary started to overlap with those personal helpline calls.
HILLARY ENRIQUEZ: We began to get quite close, and she started to tell me things that she wasn't talking to helpline about, which makes sense because she'd started to think well, you know, I guess if everyone else goes, Hillary always going to be there, sort of thing. And so, we went from it being all about money, to being about her as well.
TAMARA STANNERS: So, the lines sort of got blurred, in terms of boundaries.
ANDY SHEPPARD: Well, it got more complicated.
TAMARA STANNERS: Right.
ANDY SHEPPARD: And Hillary knew that this girl was from the same town that helpline was located in, and one day on the phone, the girl told Hillary that she'd actually seen her at a local charity event.
HILLARY ENRIQUEZ: And she said, "And then I thought, if I go and speak to her here, everything changes." Wasn't that an amazing insight? Whatever in her mind she built up around me, she would see probably something completely different. And I think she probably thought the same about her. And it's true. It's really interesting that she knew that. She knew that everything would change.
TAMARA STANNERS: It's sort of like when you meet a radio host that you love, and they look nothing like what you've imagined them to be.
ANDY SHEPPARD: Well, it sort of pops a bubble. And there's something like talking on the phone in particular is really quite intimate.
TAMARA STANNERS: Yeah.
ANDY SHEPPARD: Right? And then, but the dynamic is different when you meet the person in-person. So, the problem was that this girl was not open to change, right? She'd had enough change in her life, I think. And she'd come to rely on Hillary. She started calling at the age of seven, and by now she was 12 years old or so. And by this point, the calls were getting darker and darker, and the girl had started to drink herself.
TAMARA STANNERS: Oh, no.
ANDY SHEPPARD: Well, and also, she started to get more angry at Hillary, right? I mean, one day this girl started to question Hillary's qualifications, all about her ability to counsel, you know, what did Hillary know about family substance abuse.
HILLARY ENRIQUEZ: And I just thought, I can't do this anymore. I mean, she was telling me she never wanted to speak to me again. And she slammed the phone down, and I do remember standing up, closing the door, because I knew what I needed to do was sit with my thoughts for a while, because they were everywhere, and I was, my body was a little bit jittery, and I sat with my head in my hands.
TAMARA STANNERS: Oh, after she had invested so much emotionally to this girl, it must have been so hard to go through this.
ANDY SHEPPARD: Well, you know, in a way, the abuse that Hillary had endured when she was a kid, gave her strength and purpose as an adult. But she was also figuring out that there were limits to what she could do.
TAMARA STANNERS: So, what could she do in this situation like this? Her job is to help kids in need, but when it's actually hurting you, then what?
ANDY SHEPPARD: Yeah, I think she was at a crossroads at this point.
HILLARY ENRIQUEZ: I think because of where I came from, I am quite good, probably too good sometimes. I began compartmentalizing things. And it's interesting, because as soon as I realized I was holding onto it somewhere in my body, that I began to take a bit more time off.
ANDY SHEPPARD: So, she reflected. She examined her role as a support worker, and she needed to figure out a way to know where the boundaries were for these types of calls.
TAMARA STANNERS: I think that's key for a person in this kind of situation. You really have to take a step back and look at the bigger picture and really breathe for yourself.
ANDY SHEPPARD: Yeah, and she found that perspective, and she came back to work, and she was ready to take this girl's calls again. But the girl never called back.
TAMARA STANNERS: What? What happened to her?
ANDY SHEPPARD: Well, we don't really know.
HILLARY ENRIQUEZ: I thought she would ring back, to be honest, because she had ... You know, she had slammed the phone down on me before. And she didn't. And she didn't. I was quite shocked by that. And then I realized I was relieved, because it gave me the opportunity to not pack it.
TAMARA STANNERS: The opportunity to unload all of that emotional weight and baggage.
ANDY SHEPPARD: Yeah, and that's the thing with these kinds of helplines. I mean, it never really ends, right? So, as a counselor you have to build in time to decompress, or to move on to other clients. But Hillary still thought about this particular girl.
HILLARY ENRIQUEZ: So, there wasn't a point when I told her I wasn't going to speak to her again, but I think what she realized she'd done was she'd pushed me into the same category as her dad and her brothers, and her best friend, who's all committed suicide. It was like she had made me dead to her. And that's quite hard to think about, and to know that. But that was the way it had to be for her, I think.
TAMARA STANNERS: It sounds like Hillary needed to walk to the edge of this one relationship to truly understand how she could really help the other kids in need that were calling her helpline, who were in similar situations, and to make sure that she'd also get out of these relationships alive.
ANDY SHEPPARD: I think so, yeah.
HILLARY ENRIQUEZ: I really believe that I've got a balance between ... I know now what I can, I know my limits, I guess. And if things are tough, I reach out for help from people that I trust. And sometimes I walk away for a few days, just to have quiet time for myself and to think things through.
TAMARA STANNERS: Special thanks to Lily Ames for that interview with Hillary Enriquez. Hopefully, the relationships you have at work and at home are way less stressful. But it does get you thinking about how we connect, especially over the phone. There's a really useful article over on the Relate online magazine called “How to Interact with Customers on the Phone.” And it's literally that, a step-by-step guide for how best to manage phone calls with customers, so you can get the best results. Check it out at Relate.Zendesk.com.
That's it for Relate this time around. In two weeks, the Frenemies episode. We're looking at adversarial relationships, in particular, people who fight each other for a living. So, subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Play or wherever you listen. For more articles on connecting to your customers in deeper ways, visit Relate.Zendesk.com. And if you want to explore technology built to improve your customer interactions, head over to Zendesk dot com for a free trial. I'm Tamara Stanners. Talk to you soon.