Take a moment to think about the best listener you know. What makes them good at it? What specific skills do they have that other people may lack? Most of us think we’re pretty good listeners, but how do we know if we are? Are you listening – I mean really listening?
Many quotes are attributed to Mark Twain, in this instance he apparently: “If we were supposed to talk more than we listen, we would have two tongues and one ear.” Much as I’d like two tongues, he’s probably right. Similarly, in the Bible James says: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). The longer I’ve been in youth work the more I’ve felt that effective listening skills are one of the most important tools we have, and as such they are a tool we should all do our best to polish.
The trouble with youth workers…
In my first week as a freshly qualified youth worker, I took an assembly at a local secondary school. I was surprised when a year ten student came up to me afterwards with an accusation: “The trouble with you youth workers”, she said, “is that you’re mostly interested in the difficult kids.” She continued: “The trouble with teachers is that they’re mostly interested in the clever kids. What about the other kids, the rest of us; who’s interested in us?”
I’d not been in the job long enough to know if her perception was accurate but I decided to take her question as a challenge. I decided at that moment to spend my career in youth work being interested in the ‘other kids’. To do that I needed to consider the question of what the ‘other kids’ needed. And I felt that what they needed more than anything else was to be listened to. That was nearly 20 years ago and I’m sorry to say that it took me another ten years to realise that I needed additional listener training on top of my youth work qualifications. For a long time I just assumed that I was a good listener who would continue to get better over time – a mistake lots of us make! Listening is a complicated, powerful tool which rewards people who invest time, energy and practice into getting skilled at it. Some of those rewards are youth work-related while some are simply useful by-products. Personal relationships, work relationships, job effectiveness and general quality of life all improve by developing listening skills.
Young people are desperate to be properly listened to but they just don’t get these experiences in their everyday life; most young people I know are desperate for someone to properly listen to them. As a youth worker I try to make sure that, as often as I can, I intentionally listen to the young people I work with.
There is a difference between intentional listening and just hearing. It took me a while to realise that listening is not the same as hearing. This simple truth is the first thing that any one of the people I’ve trained as listeners have had to appreciate. I regularly train listeners who assume that they can listen because they can hear. This isn’t always the case. There is more to good listening than just hearing. Good listening requires dedicated focus. In my everyday life I don’t show people this kind of dedicated focus and that’s OK, it would be a little odd to be this focused on every conversation: it would certainly freak my wife out! But when a listener realises, sometimes part way into a conversation, that the person needs to be actively listened to. They see the need to concentrate. At this point the listener pays focused attention to the person’s voice, body language, the words used and the way they are used. They are actively looking for both verbal and non-verbal clues to try to fully understand both what is said and what is not said.
A first-aider, not a doctor
As a trained listener I have an additional skill which always adds value to my youth work. I don’t want to become a counsellor but I do want to offer skilled help which could stop some young people from needing to see a counsellor. In this way, listener training is the equivalent of going on a first-aid course. By going on a first-aid course people aren’t trying to become doctors, but they are adding additional skills to their roster which could save someone from needing a doctor, or at least help the person out until specialist help arrives.
Kieran is one teenager who I help in this way. He likes computer games and sci-fi films. He struggles at school but his situation is not desperate enough for any specialist help. His mother has approached the school repeatedly to ask if he can be assessed for special needs, but the school describe him as a typical teenage boy. When I intentionally listened to Kieran I quickly realised that although his surface life seemed typical, he was experiencing a complex emotional world which he had no one to share with. His family life and friendships offered no one to talk about his feelings. This is an incredibly common teenage experience and if we don’t tackle it head on then it stores up problems further down the line. With Kieran, a series of listening sessions gave him the platform he needed to understand his emotional world and avoid needing specialist help. This is what I love about youth work. We are best placed to be emotional first-aiders. In this way we can be best placed to help teenagers make sense of their own emotional worlds before they reach crisis point.
Young people need to talk about their feelings. Lack of opportunities to talk about their feelings is one of the causes of the crisis in mental and emotional health we face in this country
As well as being available as a trained listener I also train young people in listening and have developed a programme of peer mentoring which trains young people to mentor teenagers a couple of years younger than themselves. These approaches are effective and desperately needed youth work models which do a very small part in stemming the crisis in emotional health. I asked 50 young people the question: “What emotions do you think children and young people feel most often, apart from happy, sad and angry?” The top four answers were confusion, stress, loneliness and worry. Isn’t that scary? A typical group of young people recognise that some of the most common feelings of their friends are confusion, stress, loneliness and worry: all feelings which need to be listened to.
According to published statistics, around one in ten children and teenagers suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder. Based on these figures, in any youth group with 30 young people, three will have a diagnosable mental health problem. Ten of the 50 young people I spoke to said that apart from happiness, sadness and anger, the emotion most common in their friends was depression. Young people need to talk about their feelings. Lack of opportunities to do so is one of the causes of the crisis in mental and emotional health we face in this country. But not every young person needs counselling, and a one-to-one listening session can be too much for some. A youth worker who can deliver effective listening is literally a God-send for many. Such a youth worker is the equivalent of a first-aider. Young people need to talk more about their feelings and youth workers need to respond skilfully to that desperate need. To deliver this emotional first aid only requires some relatively simple extra training to augment skills that most youth workers already possess in abundance. I was trained by Acorn Christian Healing Foundation, which runs various courses, but other listening courses are also available.
What does a listener do?
A good listener is someone who shows they are listening and that they understand. Active listeners make a conscious effort to hear the words and the message being sent. In order to do this they pay attention very carefully to the other person. As Proverbs 20:12 says: “Ears that hear and eyes that see — the Lord has made them both.” The good listener is putting their own thoughts and feelings aside and becoming a servant to someone else. They use their eyes and ears to carefully focus on someone else. Here are some dos and don’ts:
- Do have open body posture.
- Do keep natural eye contact.
- Do have an open expression.
- Do concentrate.
- Do make active responses (smiles, nods, leaning in etc).
- Don’t assume you know what someone is going to say.
- Don’t get distracted – stay focused on the person and what is being said.
- Don’t wait for your turn – this is not a conversation – you are not waiting your turn to speak.
- Don’t judge – be aware of your own preconceptions and prejudices.
Ten tips to improve listening
Prepare yourself to listen
Listening requires sustained effort and concentration. Intentional listening is not like being in a conversation, it’s surprisingly hard work. I have to get myself ready beforehand by being quiet before God and then praying for God to guide me.
Set ground rules
I find that it helps to be clear about child protection policies and disclosures before I listen or train listeners.
Active listening does not follow the conventions of a regular conversation. In a regular conversation both parties are waiting for their chance to reply. In a listening situation the listener doesn’t wait for their turn. When I train listeners I don’t let the listener say anything for the first few sessions. Eventually I invite them to make certain responses but not until they’ve learnt to listen without talking. Most people take a while to learn to stop talking and just listen.
Be a helpful passenger
A good listening relationship can be like going on a journey together in a car. In this analogy the listener is in the passenger seat. The talker sets the topic, the agenda, the pace and the timescale. But the listener can offer guidance, or ask for clarification to keep the car heading in the right direction.
Encourage the speaker
Open, relaxed body language plus well-timed nods and gestures all help put the talker at ease. In addition, maintaining eye contact without staring, mirroring and leaning towards the speaker all help them feel at ease.
Put your phone on silent. Put aside all distracting thoughts or behaviours and give the talker your full undivided attention.
Listen for emotion words
One of the ways that active listeners respond to the talker is by listening for, and reflecting back emotion words. So if the talker mentions that they felt worried, wait for them to finish and then reflect back the emotion word by saying, “So you say you felt worried…”
One of the most powerful tools in the listener’s toolbox is pauses. Pauses give the listening session power. Allow pauses to stretch much longer that you would normally. This helps the talker realise that they are being invited to continue.
Ask effective questions
Once a listener has practised listening without words they can introduce effective questions. Questions I use are: “Out of all the things you’ve said, what do you think is the most important?” and: “Is there anything you’d like to do about these things?”
After a listening session is finished I immediately make notes. Even if a listening session is seemingly a one-off, I always make sure I have written notes about it.
After I have written notes I pray. It is important to bookend listening sessions with prayer. The prayer beforehand prepares the listener for the experience and invites the Holy Spirit to guide them. Prayer afterwards is a way of continuing to invite God into the process by interceding for the person that has been listened to. By inviting God to help the listener it also takes some of the emotional burden from the listener. Listening is emotionally draining and listeners need people to off-load to but in the immediate moments after listening God is always available to share a burden. Listening is emotionally tiring but it is also fantastically rewarding. By being a servant to others, listening is a powerful way for people to work alongside God and help bring about his kingdom.