In an edited excerpt from his new book, clinical psychologist Steve Killick writes about the importance of listening to young people.
When we attend to, and accept, the feelings of children, we help them to understand their experience and to feel understood. This understanding may transform the feelings they are experiencing and make it possible for them to manage their own feelings and find solutions or perspectives that help them solve the challenge that is facing them.
It can be frustrating for adults when children don’t respond to their suggestions. These are often given with good intention and based on adult experience. Worse, we can often end up denying or belittling feelings in a way that is not helpful. If a child who is afraid of something is told that ‘there is nothing to be afraid of’, her fears may increase rather than decrease. She might feel her feelings are something to be ashamed of, that she cannot trust her own judgement or that she might not be able to hide the ‘shameful’ feelings. Denying the existence of feelings doesn’t make them go away.
When a child is experiencing unpleasant feelings – such as disappointment, anger or sadness – it creates in adults a feeling of wanting to help. Or it may activate similar feelings in the listener. Anger begets anger, fear begets fear. We become anxious about how to respond. Yet, attempting to take away unpleasant feelings may not always be the most helpful response. Rather, it is with attention and respect to the child’s emotional state that we can help the child to make sense of the experience for herself.
Empathy facilitates a young person’s own ability to recognise and manage emotion. It can offer a new perspective to the child on his own feelings. This process can be as simple as just naming the feeling that is being experienced or perhaps acknowledging the experience for that person. The aim of offering empathy is to acknowledge what the person is feeling and facilitate that person’s own emotional management or problem-solving skills.
Emotionally literate listening
Reflective listening is actively listening to feelings and to the thoughts expressed about those feelings. An adult being willing to engage in a conversation about feelings communicates that emotions are important and to be valued and respected.
Statements of understanding communicate that we understand and respect the experience of the person. They can often be used in place of instructions or commands.
We might like to think that we always accept the feelings of others, especially children. Unfortunately, when listening to conversations adults have with children, we find that it is often just not so. This is especially the case if a child has a complaint or is not complying with what is being asked of her.
Empathy is about taking the perspective of another. When we are interested in knowing more about a child’s emotional experience and helping them express this, we become empathic. It is being curious rather than judgemental about how the child sees the world, their feelings, intentions, desires and motivations.
The foundation of reflective listening is one of respect for the child’s emotional life. It also involves particular skills. The techniques described here need practice until they become part of a person’s repertoire of communication. They need to feel comfortable and natural, to be used with warmth and genuineness. They do not work if used as ‘techniques’ to get people to talk or to try and get people to comply.
Listen with full attention
Listening is the basis for helping a child to express their emotions and experience being understood. This is not just listening to the words but an active listening in which one’s full attention is given to the speaker so as to notice what clues and information we are being given. This means an awareness of body language; both the non-verbal communication of the child, and our own. Do we look like we are interested in what is happening or is our attention elsewhere? We often say most just with our eyes.
When listening, sometimes it is not necessary to speak. Our attention sends sufficient information to the speaker to indicate that we are engaged. Silence is an important part of communication and it is not necessary to fill periods of silence with comments. Rather, we need to be comfortable with it and see what emerges. We also need to cultivate our own inner silence, to show that we are not trying to anticipate or second guess what a child might say.
Acknowledge the feeling
Often just one-word statements or just a sound are enough to tell the child that you are listening and accepting what he is saying. ‘Uh-huh’, ‘I see’ or ‘mmm’ can give enough feedback and encouragement to show that you are listening and keen to hear more. It can also be effective to pick up on a key word, particularly a feeling word, and to repeat that back in a gentle, enquiring way.
Name the feeling
Naming the feeling that is being expressed, yet not voiced, helps clarify the emotional issue and convey that you have an understanding of a person’s experience. It also offers a strong opportunity to develop an emotional vocabulary and provides an alternative to denying feelings or giving advice that may discourage the student.
Sometimes a child is going to have a strong wish or desire that something in his life be very different. It is often then that adults will launch into reasoning with the intention of explaining to the child why things are as they are. However kindly intended, this can often encounter resistance and resentment. A very powerful technique is to give in fantasy what can’t be given in reality by saying things like:
- ‘You really wish you didn’t have to do maths. It makes you frustrated.’
- ‘You really wish you didn’t have to work with David on this project.’
- ‘You’re angry with him for what he did. You would like to hurt him.’
Allowing these expressions of what someone wishes does not condone unacceptable behaviour, but help someone express more safely what they are feeling and then reduce the need to act it out. All emotions can be accepted and in the acceptance be processed. Murderous hate can transform into anger that can become a problem that can be solved.
With many of these skills, it is very tempting to acknowledge the feelings and then make a directive comment. This usually takes the form of a ‘but’. For instance ‘You sound angry but you must do as you are told.’ However, this ‘but’ just negates the empathy you have offered and will again create resistance and defensiveness. Practise just making reflective statements and then watching to see what happens.
Talk to feelings
When someone is overwhelmed by strong feelings, what gets said might cause considerable anxiety: as when, for example, a young person swears he is going to hurt another. A teacher might feel that limits may have to be stated clearly. This may be so. It may, however, be of more importance to acknowledge the emotional content and to name it more specifically so as to help the student manage it himself.
Talking to the feelings enables the young person to explore further and models more appropriate expression. It offers him the opportunity to calm himself and maintain his dignity. When that happens, it is not uncommon for a young person to then start making amends, apologising for their outbursts without having to be told to do so.
Questions do not always facilitate conversation and too many questions can be inquisitorial. Children do not always respond to questions readily and often respond just with one-word answers. Questions need to be used judiciously. It is useful to make a distinction between open and closed questions. Open-ended questions are questions that usually don’t have a right or wrong answer; rather they offer a person an opportunity to talk and give their viewpoint. They cannot be answered with a yes or no so are better to help a child talk more fully. Helpful questions often begin with ‘what’ or ‘how’. Questions beginning with ‘why’ can sound blaming and may prompt silence so are best avoided. Open questions can follow from reflective statements and the tone of voice is critical.
There are occasions when we can reflect back what a child is saying with ‘a bit of a twist.’ This is when the child needs his feelings reflected back to him in a more palatable way enabling him to think about them. A reframe changes the way something is viewed. Consider the difference between describing a child as a ‘difficult child’ or reframing this as a ‘child with difficulties’. Reframes are particularly useful when a child might describe himself or others negatively or pejoratively. When reflecting it is important not to collude with negative statements that a child might make about himself and reframing can accept some of the emotional content while challenging the negative description. Reframes can offer more helpful ways to see problems.
Challenge negative talk
If a child makes a very negative statement about himself or others, it is important that some of these statements are challenged. This is similar to reframing but may more directly challenge the child’s belief, or at least, make clear that you do not accept it. This can be done most effectively by the use of I-messages that accept the child’s feelings while at the same time stating that you have a different viewpoint.
Having a mix of feelings about things is perfectly normal. Children can both love and hate school in roughly equal measures. They can feel ambivalent about their friends, their family and their teachers. They may also be ambivalent about trying something new.
Ambivalence can be confusing to tolerate. Many adults find it uncomfortable and confusing. They may respond with a statement such as ‘make your mind up’. Accepting ambivalence means tolerating uncertainty and complexity. Learning that this ambivalence is a natural state of mind, that we can feel conflicting emotions about things and that we can change our mind, helps children feel less confused. Where there is love there is also hate, where there is fear there is often excitement.
These mixed feelings can be accepted for what they are and reflecting them back to the child helps him see them more clearly and weigh them up in balance. The adult does not need to resolve it but to state the dilemma that helps the child see it clearly.
Creating different solutions
A teacher noted that one of his Year 3 children was finding it hard to leave the classroom to join with others at breaktime. Some days, he was asking to stay inside or spending a long time putting things away. Prompts did not seem to help and the teacher was becoming increasingly impatient to get back his own break.
One day, the teacher asked, ‘You don’t look like you want to go out and play. What’s the matter?’
The boy replied, ‘Everybody hates me. I haven’t got any friends.’
The teacher responded by arguing what he knew to be true. ‘Hey, you’ve got plenty of friends. Yesterday, I saw you were playing with Luke. He’s a good friend of yours.’
The boy did not respond to this accurate observation. The teacher felt more frustrated and the child was looking more sullen. Further appeals to reason didn’t help.
Eventually, the teacher found himself saying, ‘Now don’t be silly, everybody likes you, now go out and play.’
The child walked off, giving the teacher an angry stare. His body language displayed a child defeated. The teacher was left with the feeling that, although he tried to help, his intervention had made things worse.
The incident bothered him and he reflected on the conversation. When he thought about his statements he realised that he had not been accepting the child’s comments about himself. Instead, he had immediately offered alternatives and solutions. It wasn’t that his suggestions were inaccurate; the child did have good friendships that the teacher had observed. He hadn’t helped because he hadn’t accepted the child’s view of the world before offering his own.
In fact, he had sent a message that the child couldn’t trust his own feelings. In telling the child not to be silly, he had really implied that he was being silly in what he was feeling and that he should stop it.
It was not long before the situation arose again and he found the child was lingering in the classroom.
‘Looks like you don’t want to play today’.
The child looked at the teacher, ‘No one wants to play with me.’
‘That sounds lonely,’ offered the teacher tentatively, ‘It’s really hard when you feel no one wants to play with you.’
‘Some days nobody will talk to me. I wish I didn’t have to go to school’.
‘It must feel really horrible to feel left out like that,’ said the teacher. As he did this, he had the recognition that sometimes he had a similar feeling when he entered the staff room.
The child went on to say. ‘Yeh, but some days aren’t so bad’ and he went to leave and rushed out into the playground with a smile on his face.
The teacher thought about this exchange often and kept his eye open on what was happening for the child. In accepting and naming the feelings, the young person himself had transformed them. Indeed when the teacher tried to articulate the feelings he thought the young person was experiencing, he was transformed. He realised that he too shared that feeling. In his observations of the child he realised that the child was struggling with the hardships of the playground. Yes, he had friends who he played with well, in one-to-one situations, but group situations were just too overwhelming for him. He was becoming frightened and at times avoiding the rough and tumble that free play presented. But, he was also learning how to deal with it. Over a period of months, the teacher observed the child gaining confidence.
Ways of encouraging dialogue between young people
- Attend to what happens between young people. How are they relating to each other? What ideas are they bringing to their work and where is their thinking coming from?
- Encourage young people to give reasons for what they say and help them ask questions when they don’t understand or want to know more.
- Relax control of the content of discussions and be ready to be taken in new directions by young people’s contributions
- Be facilitative in a way that encourages dialogue and discussion and managing the class in such a way that some individuals do not dominate or others are sidelined.
- Be ready to encourage and explore controversial, damaging and sensitive statements. Be open to emotions rather than attempting to control them.
Steve Killick’s Emotional Literacy at the Heart of the School Ethos was written as a result of his work with marginalised young people attending NCH Headlands School in Penarth, near Cardiff. It is published by Lucky Duck/Paul Chapman Publishing at £18.99.
The ideas described here are based on:
How to Talk so Kids Can Learn – At Home and in School (1995),
How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk (1999) both by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish and Teacher and Child (1972) by Haim Ginott.