December 21, 2012 by Susan Moore, Adviser

Advice is defined as an opinion which someone offers you about what you should do or how you should act in a particular situation (Cambridge University Press- Cambridge dictionaries online)

Our advice line receives an average of 700 calls per month. Some of these fit in to the definition of advice very well. A question is asked, information is provided, and the caller goes away with a clear sense of what they should do and the implications of this action.

However, people’s lives are rarely so straightforward. The majority of our callers come to us with a complex package of experiences, questions and needs and most calls could not be described as pure advice.

Providing a listening ear

Advisers have a wealth of knowledge and experience in order to offer callers clear and in depth information and advice about a range of legal and practice issues. In addition, however, it is vital that we have and use a range of counselling skills such as empathy, a non judgemental approach and active listening.

Callers come to us in a range of emotional states. Because of the nature of the advice we offer, many callers are deeply distressed, desperate, frustrated, and angry. Some calls can appear to be predominantly “counselling” calls.

A recent independent evaluation of our advice service, asked callers about their experiences of the advice line and what they had found most helpful. The evaluation report repeatedly highlights the value that callers place on this element of our service.

The truth is that much of the advice I and my colleagues give to parents is hard to hear. Often I advise parents to accept very difficult realities about their own situations, to understand concerns about them and their children and accept where changes might need to be made. I also, very frequently, advise people to co-operate with and engage in processes that feel desperately negative and unfair. Some of what I am advising a parent to do, for example, may have been said already by local authority social workers but they have been unable to hear or accept it. 

In order to give advice meaningfully, we must first truly listen to and understand our callers. Once they feel heard, callers are more able to hear, trust and act upon our advice. Of course it also helps that we’re independent of any decision about the child, which also assists in building callers’ trust. This is a real strength of our advice service.

Advocating for families

For some callers, advice is not enough. However well a caller feels heard, however accessible the information that is presented to them, however much they might understand and accept the advice being given, some callers simply do not have the capacity or resources to make full use of the advice without further support.

The advice we are providing to a grandmother caring for her 2 severely disabled grandchildren without appropriate support from the local authority may be the key to moving things forward and preventing the placement from breaking down. But if she is too exhausted and overwhelmed to act on the advice, however, this value is lost and we are just another service unable to make a difference to her difficulties.

We have been successful in securing funding from the Orp Foundation and the Rayne Foundation to provide a limited amount of self and indirect advocacy to callers to our advice line who require this service. In practice, these are not big pieces of work. But sending the above grandmother a template letter, which she can adapt and send to Children’s Services or making a telephone call to a social worker on her behalf may be enough to make the advice truly meaningful and move the situation forward. The value that this adds to the advice service is tremendous, and this too is noted in the evaluation.

People’s lives are complicated, complex and fluid. As a result, our advice line has to match this need and be responsive to the people who use our service. As noted evidence from the recent evaluation is overwhelmingly positive, which is reassuring and indicates, in the great majority of cases we are getting the balance right. As we move in to 2013, I look forward to continue learn, listen, advocate and, most importantly, help our service users by giving them the type of advice they need.