What Are The Right Words In A Text That Can Calm A Crisis?

What Are The Right Words In A Text That Can Calm A Crisis?

Crisis hotlines have been around for years, but until recently there’s been very little data on which counseling strategies seemed most effective at helping people cope. The recent emergence of text-based crisis help lines is changing that.

Designed for people who prefer texting to talking, these services generate large datasets of anonymous counseling sessions—raw material that computer scientists can study to identify the words and techniques that seem to improve outcomes.

“If you talk about the future, I will be more likely to talk about the future. If I talk positively, you’ll be more likely to talk positively.”

“Until now, most research on counseling has remained small-scale, looking at voice transcripts of only a few dozen sessions,” says Jure Leskovec, an associate professor of computer science at Stanford University.

Leskovec and colleagues analyzed 660,000 text messages from 15,000 crisis counseling sessions. In a paper in Transactions of the Association for Computational Linguistics, the researchers identify several techniques associated with successful sessions, such as personalizing exchanges, quickly getting to the root of the problem, and using words and phrases to steer conversations onto a positive track.

Leskovec says he believes such findings could be used to train counselors how to respond most effectively when a person in the midst of a crisis reaches out for help. “We can look at orders of magnitude more data than previous studies allowed, to gain new insights and precisely quantify which counseling strategies worked,” he says.

From start to finish

For this study, the researchers developed new methods of natural language analysis to determine how the words and phrases that counselors used influenced whether distressed texters reported feeling better at the end of the conversation.

 Get The Latest From InnerSelf

In particular, they contrasted the language used by counselors who are very successful at getting texters to report feeling better with the language of those counselors who were generally less successful

Researchers discovered that all counseling conversations followed five stages: introduction, problem setting, problem exploration, problem solving, and wrap-up.

Each stage can be characterized by the words counselors as well as texters use. For example, the introduction stage was marked by greetings on both sides and the wrap-up stage showed texters expressing appreciation and counselors using words like “any time,” “good night,” and “appreciate.”

How to draw people out

These stages were independent of the topic, which could be anything from relationship troubles to thoughts of suicide. But by analyzing and comparing how the most successful and least successful counselors progressed through the stages, the researchers discovered one key difference.

“Successful counselors quickly got to the heart of the issue and spent more of the conversation dealing with the problem,” Althoff says. “The less successful counselors took a lot more time to get to know the problem.”

This finding is related to another interesting pattern: successful counselors tend to respond more effectively to ambiguous messages. Presented with exactly the same situation—a breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend, for example—a successful counselor typically asks more clarifying questions. They paraphrase responses to make sure they understand, and they thank the texter for reaching out.

In short, successful counselors do more to draw out the terse texter and get to the crux of the person’s problem. As Althoff explains, this means that successful counselors tend to talk more. They personalize their messages to the specific texter and situation so their comments sound natural. The study showed that texters tended to talk more about certain topics once counselors broached those topics. So counselors can put texters in a better frame of mind by making subtle changes to their own language.

“If you talk about the future, I will be more likely to talk about the future,” as Althoff says. “If I talk positively, you’ll be more likely to talk positively.”

This type of analysis can be applied to training crisis counselors in the short run and, as the language analysis techniques improve, perhaps even lead to the development of automated conversational agents that support counselors during training and actual conversations.

“These sorts of applications become possible when we bring the power of natural language analysis and artificial intelligence to bear on extremely large datasets of real crisis conversations,” Leskovec says.

Source: Marina Krakovsky for Stanford University

Related Books

{amazonWS:searchindex=Books;keywords=text messaging;maxresults=3}


follow InnerSelf on


 Get The Latest By Email



The Day Of Reckoning Has Come For The GOP
by Robert Jennings, InnerSelf.com
The Republican party is no longer a pro-America political party. It is an illegitimate pseudo-political party full of radicals and reactionaries whose stated goal is to disrupt, destabilize, and…
Why Donald Trump Could Be History's Biggest Loser
by Robert Jennings, InnerSelf.com
Updated July 2, 20020 - This whole coronavirus pandemic is costing a fortune, maybe 2 or 3 or 4 fortunes, all of unknown size. Oh yeah, and, hundreds of thousands, maybe a million, of people will die…
Blue-Eyes vs Brown Eyes: How Racism is Taught
by Marie T. Russell, InnerSelf
In this 1992 Oprah Show episode, award-winning anti-racism activist and educator Jane Elliott taught the audience a tough lesson about racism by demonstrating just how easy it is to learn prejudice.
A Change Is Gonna Come...
by Marie T. Russell, InnerSelf
(May 30, 2020) As I watch the news on the events in Philadephia and other cities in the country, my heart aches for what is transpiring. I know that this is part of the greater change that is taking…
A Song Can Uplift the Heart and Soul
by Marie T. Russell, InnerSelf
I have several ways that I use to clear the darkness from my mind when I find it has crept in. One is gardening, or spending time in nature. The other is silence. Another way is reading. And one that…