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issue 12 JANUARY 2000 / BACK
Listen to this



It looks like the easiest thing in the world. Many people think that listening is just about as passive as you can get: you just stand there, do nothing, and let it happen. But listening is much more than this. For child and youth care workers, it is a whole set of active interventions ...

Stop and listen
One of the most powerful things you can do for youngsters is to give them your full attention as you stop and listen. It makes anyone feel significant when you stop what you are doing for a while, and listen. Carl Rogers says: “I listen as carefully, accurately, and sensitively as I am able, to each individual who expresses himself. Whether the utterance is superficial or significant, I listen. To me the individual who speaks is worthwhile, worth understanding: consequently he is worthwhile for having expressed something."

For deprived, neglected and abused kids, the gift of listening is something extra special because of the unusual (for them) message that we give them: “I think you are important enough for me to stop to hear what you have to say."

Allow youngsters to speak
The children and young people we work with did not have many people willing to listen to them, and certainly did not have people willing to listen to what they had to say. Our quiet gift to them is to give them an ear, so saying “I have time for you, I am listening." More important, we must allow them to say what it is they need to say. They will want to say things they have not been allowed to say (or perhaps not allowed even to think) in the past. In listening we need to be unshockable. Because we are child care workers, whatever they think or feel is relevant to our work. We cannot tell them to keep their pain and doubt to themselves. Like the doctor must say to his patient, to be helpful, we have to be able to say: “Tell me where it hurts."

Take the emotional “temperature”
However, the minute you stop to listen, you will know that you have embarked on an active task. Listening can be hard work, especially when troubled clients are involved, people who are depending on you for your help and understanding.

One of the first things we do when we listen is to check out whether we are listening to ideas or to feelings. A youngster may say “I think school is stupid." We look carefully at the speaker to see whether this is simply a topic for discussion (for example, “School doesn't prepare us for real life as adults") or whether it is a feeling the person is struggling to control (for example, “I am failing, I am feeling inadequate and overwhelmed, I want to run away from this anguish").

When kids are talking ideas, the 'temperature' of their communication is low, and our response will be governed by simple interest and politeness. But when kids are talking feelings, the 'temperature' of their communication is higher, and our response will call for more relationship skills.

Waiting to talk
It is probable that many of our kids have been trying to say something for a long time “maybe years “but their adults have not listened. The adults have been absent, have been preoccupied by their own problems, have been too busy “or just haven't cared enough to stop and listen.

It is easy to understand how youngsters can get desperate when nobody has listened to them. Imagine yourself standing at the counter of a store and nobody comes along to say “Can I help you?" You know how quickly your own feelings go downhill, starting with impatience and then exasperation, to resentment to anger... until you feel like banging on the counter and saying something decidedly un-adult! Many of the youngsters in your group feel like that. When we eventually come along to listen and say “Can I help you?" it is almost certain that they will say something which translates into “ ... and about bloody time!" So it is that many of us hear our kids talking in exaggerated, loud and uncouth ways. No matter, we must listen.

Translate the real or “inner” message
The lower the 'temperature', the more direct are people's communications. “Can you tell me how to find the post office?" is a pretty straight-forward message. “Do you care about me more than my mother does?" is an altogether different story, and we may have to listen much harder to dig out the underlying feelings. We can't simply answer “Yes" or “No". This youngster is not discussing an idea, but a feeling. It is we who are often anxious about moving away from the safe territory of discussing ideas. We are tempted to respond by saying ambiguously “Don't be silly" and looking at our watch, rather than stopping to take seriously something which this youngster is clearly struggling with.

What did the child say? What response is wanted?
Careful listening tells us what kind of reply the child expects. Not every expression of anxiety is a call for help. Perhaps we should simply acknowledge the anxiety, realise that we have been informed about this, but that we are not always expected to do anything about it. We disempower young people when we rush in too quickly with help and solutions. If we are unsure, there's no harm in asking, since we don't want to withhold help if help is being asked. “Are you managing that alright by yourself ... ?" is a good reply. Very common are messages like “Mary's teasing me" or “John is taking my stuff." Are we just having the responsibility passed on to us by a manipulative child, or is this a job for Superman? How well we listen decides on how often we get this right.

When we listen, a child feels heard
Troubled youth experience great relief when someone hears them and tries to understand them. Sometimes you can almost hear the sigh of relief as though they are saying “At last! Someone listened. Someone heard what I said. Someone understands. Someone accepted from me what I had to say." It is a basic lesson in child and youth care that if we don't respond to a child's message today, he will repeat it tomorrow, but probably in a more desperate, more shrill, and increasingly inappropriate way. There are many ways in which a child may say “I am really angry!" Better that we hear this message while it is still being expressed in words. Left unanswered, later it will be expressed in destructive actions.

Helping young people to talk
It is often our listening habits which keep youngsters from talking, and we need to work at these. For example. how often do we shoot back answers to their questions, thus closing off the interaction. “How do I do this?" asks one of the kids, struggling with some task. “Like this." we say “and we do it! End of transaction, leaving very little in the way of new growth or learning “and zip contributed to the relationship. “Why do you think I'm in care but not my sister!" asks another. “Because she was younger than you," we reply. End of discussion. But the child was very probably not looking for such a slick answer. (Did we 'take the temperature' of this approach as carefully as we might?) We must cultivate better listening habits by replying in such a way that says: “if this is something which concerns you, I'm here to listen." It's a good idea to reply “What do you think about that?" or “Tell me about it ... “

Listen to the words but also to the non-verbal messages
Even you and I sometimes don't have the words to say how we feel. We are afraid about a visit to the doctor, or a quarrel with a loved one. Instead of saying this, we may 'forget' the doctor's appointment or sulk with our partner. These non-verbal messages come across loud and clear. One of the children walks past, hands in pockets, staring at the ground. “What's wrong!" we ask. “Nothing," they reply. But we believe their action rather than their words. We can see there's something wrong. We learn to reply to the body language as much as to the verbal messages. But it takes time to learn this skill. Brendtro reminds us that “non-verbal communication is not a few isolated techniques; it is an entire language, and a language for which no dictionaries have yet been compiled."

(Kids also understand this non-verbal language, so be careful that your body says what your words say when you should be listening to a child. You may look at your watch, flourish your clip-board, peer impatiently into the distance “all of which says to the youngster: “I really am in a hurry, I have so much to do, I would rather be over there ...")

When the children do not talk ...
We child and youth care workers are not always the sort of people the children would choose to talk to. Adults have often let them down in the past. Probably we are not very much “like" them in our interests and styles. Yet, if we are to be any use to them, we need to start them talking so someone can listen. Child care workers, more than most other professionals, need to learn the local lingo and the local topics for conversation. Not so that we can be “one of the gang" but so that we can include ourselves in the dialogue.

Adolescents have two levels of conversation: Level One is the real teenage stuff to which we are not invited (like boys, girls, parents, sex, clothes, who's doing what with whom, etc.) Level Two is the (usually quite limited) topic area which can be shared in common with adults (like sports, music, daily news, books and magazines, etc.) We must be up-to-date enough to conduct a coherent discussion at Level Two “and more important, to be able to kick-start a discussion at Level Two. Level Two talk is often a way of giving kids something to say. More deeply, Level Two talk is also important clinically in that it draws youngsters out of themselves, out of their alone-ness, and starts to connect them with others and with their outer world.

If you can't talk and listen at Level Two you will be uninteresting to young people, and you will never build the bridge which will allow more intimate talking and listening.

(Level Zero, by the way, is the acutely boring small-talk we so often engage in, and which leads nowhere: “Hi. Did you have a nice day at school?" “Yeah." End of encounter. Why on earth do we do this? It's the kind of stuff we talk with people on the first day we meet them; we should be moving on to more personalised conversation, and we can get there easily from Level Two.)

Just listening to what's going on
We have talked a lot about being available to listen to individual youngsters who need to be heard. Sensible child and youth care workers keep their ears to the ground no matter who is talking “so as to keep up to date on the “buzz" of the group as a whole. Are you always the last to get the “weather report" regarding the mood of your unit? You will be anxious if you hear at second hand that “the kids are restless or angry" because you don't know where all the feelings are coming from. If you make a point of listening to what's going around, you can make better judgements about the “temperature" of the group (or subgroup) and thus know what to expect and how to manage developing situations. You don't listen to private conversations (unless they happen in front of you) but you do stay alert enough to pick up the cues of what's going on in and around your group of kids.

Not listening to what's going on
As a corollary to the previous point, we don't have to respond to everything we hear. We must use our judgement as to whether we should intervene when one youngster is having a hard time with a couple of others: protect him (at what cost?) or give him the opportunity (at what risk?) to test his own strengths? We must also use our judgement as to whether we should intervene when a kid swears or slurps his soup or expresses some destructive feeling. If we don't need an argument or a show of authority right now over some misbehaviour, let it be.

We can choose what to hear and what not to hear. Turning a deaf ear to something is not to remain unaware of it; it is to decide that intervening right now will not best serve our treatment goals.

So what did you hear today? Did you pick up accurately the tone of your living group so that you are roughly one step ahead of them as you plan for tomorrow “or were you too busy making sure it all happened your way? (... in which case, you will never believe how off-target you were!) Did you pick up accurately the condition of the individual kids “how they're feeling, how they're managing? This will make you a far more responsive adult in your day-to-day interactions. You can only do this by listening. You will know that you are doing a better job. And the kids will know it too.


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