The softer skills needed for safe listening spaces 

Boreal owl looking to the camera on branch with copy space

Claudia Elliot, Communications at Listening Fund’s Learning Partner, Collective Discovery 

Creating safe spaces for effective listening to young people requires skill. But which skill(s), exactly? We spoke to a group of Listening Fund partners to explore what different types of expertise were proving particularly valuable in their work. And whilst ‘hard’ skills – such as facilitation or co-design – were undoubtedly considered important, there were also many soft skills that partners thought were just as important, but more easily overlooked.

Here are some of the less obvious, but equally essential skills that foster an environment for young people to be meaningfully listened to. 

Establishing safe and trusting environments

  • Creating safe spaces is essential for young people to feel at ease and to be able to open up. Professionals should remember the importance of building rapport and trust with young people by cultivating a welcoming and non-judgmental atmosphere. This requires a softer and less easily defined (and perhaps less easily learned) skill—being at ease in the environment, having self-awareness, and holding the space from a solid somatic foundation.  

Personal reflectiveness

  • Something that can support professionals in creating that safe and trusting environment is to be aware of their own biases, emotions, and energy when engaging with young people. Personal reflectiveness can help professionals ensure they are actively listening without imposing their own agendas or opinions – and strike a good balance between facilitating and supporting, active listening and knowing when to hold back and say less. 

Cultural sensitivity

  • Recognising and understanding the cultural barriers that young people from diverse backgrounds may face is crucial. Some cultures within and outside of the UK may discourage young people from speaking up, being critical, or expressing themselves freely in the presence of older people. Professionals must create safe spaces that respect and accommodate these cultural differences, and help the young people understand that they are safe to speak their minds around professionals. 

Addressing power dynamics

  • The way young people interact with adults can often be understood through the lens of power. Recognising and navigating power dynamics in the room is crucial, especially in settings where power is or has been exerted on the young people more explicitly. Professionals need to be mindful of how power imbalances can impact communication and ensure that the voices of young individuals are valued and respected. This requires creating an environment where power is shared as much as possible, and each young person – from the most to the least confident – feel empowered to speak up. 

Willingness to address conflict and challenges

  • Conflict and challenges could arise during conversations with young people, and professionals must not shy away from these situations. Instead, they could view conflict as an opportunity to model positive and constructive conversations for the young people. By addressing conflicts with empathy, active listening, and respect, professionals can help young people develop essential conflict resolution skills. 

Partners also highlighted some organisational skills, or qualities in professionals’ interactions with colleagues, that can help to foster a listening organisation:

Engaging colleagues in the journey

  • Young people can be listened to well, but that may not have an impact if that listening is not taken on board by the organisation. So, there is a dual task – of listening well to young people, and actively involving colleagues and gaining their buy-in to being part of a listening organisation. By bringing colleagues on a journey – perhaps by involving them, addressing their resistance or fear around listening, and highlighting the benefits of listening – you can move closer to genuinely becoming a listening organisation. 

“I find lots of people new to this work are doing the right things, but sometimes it’s about finding the language for them to be able to talk about what they are doing and why.” 

workshop participant

Embracing a strength-based approach 

  • Many professionals whose jobs are not youth-facing may have fears or hesitancy about interactions with young people. As well as offering training and support appropriate to the kinds of listening interactions they may have, it is important to take a strength-based approach to appraising or reviewing the interactions they do have. By focusing on the strengths and capabilities of colleagues, you can empower them to continue improving their listening skills.  

Challenging stereotyping

  • Professionals must be prepared to challenge the stereotypes and biases their colleagues have in respect to young people, which may not recognise the value they bring, or the difference between each young person. However, it’s essential to approach this situation with encouragement rather than judgment. 

While there are many skills for creating safe spaces for young people that can be taught in courses, professionals shouldn’t overlook the softer skills that are just as important for effective listening – ranging from self-reflection and being aware of your own experience in a space, to knowing how to advocate for and encourage listening practice with colleagues. All of these will support and amplify the training and learned skill to create really impactful listening in your organisation. 

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