Deborah: Befriending training taught me the value of empathy.

I’ll admit it: I made too many new years resolutions. By the time February rolled around my focus predictably waned, but still I was determined to make one stick: that I would engage in more volunteer work. I wanted to make 2018 less about me and more about helping others. So when the opportunity arose, I signed up to become a HAGAR befriender.

It was for this reason that on the 3rd February I had the privilege of attending a half-day training conducted by Wei Chern, an experienced social worker. HAGAR’s befriending program aims to alleviate loneliness of their Singapore clients. These are survivors of trafficking who often suffer from the duo isolation of traumatic experiences and the isolation of being away from their home country and support networks. Typically one or two volunteers are matched with a client. Volunteers arrange for meet-ups with clients, communicate with them through phone or via text, and provide emotional and moral support.

Having had little direct interaction with trauma survivors, I did not know what to expect from the training. However I found the workshop to be both informative and practical (a hard balance to strike!) with broad coverage of basic counselling principles interjected with practical activities that helped volunteers put theory into practice. We were also given clear guidelines on the roles of befriender and client and the relationship between the two, as well as guidance on who to contact should we need professional help to navigate tricky situations.

My key takeaway is that befriending is mostly about developing empathy: to walk in the other person’s shoes, practice compassion and withhold judgement. Whilst this is a simple enough directive, it is often difficult to execute. To be truly empathetic – to hear and meet a person exactly where they are – requires accessing a part of yourself that can identify with feelings of loss and grief. It therefore necessitates a vulnerability and willingness to engage in your own negative emotions and to be able to sensitively perceive them in others. Most challenging perhaps is that it requires resisting the temptation to offer a happy platitude to “lighten the mood”, choosing instead to lean in to negative emotions, as uncomfortable as it may be.

For someone as impatient and task-oriented as I, this might prove difficult at times as there are no quantifiable markers of progress and the process offers no immediate gratification. Nevertheless I continue to remind myself that the purpose of befriending is not to solve problems, rather to provide a much-needed sense of companionship and connectedness.

Whilst the latter takes longer, I am sure the rewards will be far more satisfying.

For trauma survivors, the road to recovery remains a difficult and painful one. While most direct interventions require specific technical skills, volunteering as a befriender is accessible to anyone. If you are interested in volunteering as a befriender please drop us a message.

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