Are you listening carefully? Have you heard what was said? Or are you working to your own agenda?
It’s been a while since I’ve blogged. Life has taken over as it does. Recently though a few conversations in different settings I’ve been in have made me question how much we really listen to people around us. More important than listening is whether we have heard. It got me thinking, how often do we not listen, then work to our own agendas without considering all viewpoints, or gaining a balanced understanding of the needs and wants of individuals and those at the heart of what we do? Coincidentally, how does this affect the work we do?
Much of my work is reliant on listening. It has to be. Whether I’m coaching a young person one to one, managing a team, or developing a programme of activities, it’s imperative that I hold spaces where those I am there to serve feel heard. They are at the heart of what I do. That’s not to brush aside my own beliefs. These are equally important, but my bias should not form the motivation to the end result.
At the centre of nearly all of my work are young people. I’ve worked with all ages, but primarily, youth work focuses on those aged 11+ and this is where the bulk of those I currently support fall into age wise. Why is it important to listen to them though? Because they want to be heard. In fact, isn’t that what we all want?
It’s far too easy to reach the conclusion that teenagers are ignorant, that they ignore adults, but as an article from Joe Heard at All Pro Dad explains, in much the same way that a child cries out to be heard, wanted, held, recognised, appreciated, seen, so do teens. Their brains are developing, they’re fighting hormones, but they still have the basic need of having a strong, safe relationship. They may mumble, but they will express their wants and needs, and when they do, they must be heard. If we fail to meet such a basic need, they’ll seek their answers elsewhere, from friends, the internet, or those we don’t want them to get their answers from because the answers they’ll receive could have a negative impact on them.
And this is the same for adults. Whilst we may have reached a greater level of maturity, there is still a basic need to be heard and understood, especially if you are advocating for a young person, as you’re effectively getting two person’s views across.
As a parent, you will constantly be wanting to speak up for your child. You want what’s best, even if you do not know what they themselves want, and how many times have you been pushed back by somebody who always thinks they know better and you cry out ‘but I know my child’ or ‘my child will tell you if you only listen’?
It’s the same for Youth Workers. One of our primary aims is to be able to build strong working relationships with young people to support either an unmet need, or provide a platform where their voice can be heard amongst peers, as this often feels a safer option than one on one in the family home (or battling the siblings voices).
Over the years, I’ve worked with hundreds, probably creeping to thousands, of young people of all ages, in educational settings as well as voluntary and charity sectors. Daytime institutions versus evening drop-ins, through targeted interventions. It’s a broad range, but at the nucleus, the young person, and a space where they can be open, honest, and flourish.
Despite this though, all too often, I come across people who devalue this important work. I personally studied for seven years to qualify as a Youth Worker. Like so many others, I too am entitled to throw letters after my name. Like quite a few, I battled with my mental health through it all, often because as I stumbled through trying to find my way in life and realise that this where my passion and skillset lie, there would always be a knock-back, someone who didn’t believe that I knew what I was doing. For every person that would listen and encourage, there’d be ten that would think they knew better, even though they had no training, experience, or dedication to the field.
As I reflect (on the past few weeks in particular), it’s fascinating how, like the young people I serve, I too need to be heard, to be held. Am I soft? Incapable of holding my own? No. Far from it. At college (where I studied something completely unrelated) I was nicknamed at the end of the course The Silent Assassin because I always kept a still tongue, watching, observing, but when I spoke and made a point, people knew about it. To this day, I still aim to stand by that. You learn far more by listening than talking hence the phrase ‘you were given two ears and one mouth for a reason’.
But the importance of me being heard as a Youth Worker is not because it benefits me, but because it benefits the young people I work with. I build those relationships, I listen, I learn, I know what they want. I hold that knowledge and get to know the individuals behind a name on a register as the individuals they deserve to be known as. By ignoring me, a lot of what the young people want gets missed as they return to their joyfully grunting ways. It’s always a pleasure to be able to share with parents things their children have been trying to tell them but struggled to.
Equally, listening to young people in the settings I’ve worked and continue to do so allows those organisations to thrive. Youth Voice is crucial to making a place work for the benefit of the young people. It should always be centred on them, not on the adults supporting them, who play a small part in their world. They need to feel as though their views are important, they’re at the centre of decisions, and choices are made that will impact them in a positive way, allowing them to easily access the support they need in this fast-paced ever-changing world.
It’s disheartening when a Youth Worker isn’t listened to because nine times out of ten their views are actually those of the young people they support and by being heard, could greatly help that child as they grow and explore their individual paths in life.
Who else in their work would put up with being told how to do their job? Despite working in education, I’ve often said to friends and colleagues ‘I’d never tell a headteacher how to do their job as it’s not what I trained to do, and as a result I wouldn’t expect them to tell me how to do mine’. Our jobs may be similar in terms of supporting children and young people, but our approach, backgrounds, and training are different.
There’s been several times recently where indirectly, my standing as a Youth Worker, and essentially the field of Youth Work as a result, have been questioned. Once you’re questioned, it puts doubt in your mind, and takes a lot of strength and courage to continue doing what you know you are highly capable of, but if you’ve qualified in this field and those questioning you haven’t, then is the questioning due to their own insecurities? If so, it becomes even more unsettling knowing that they feel they could do your role better.
I urge you to always hold on to why you do what you do. It’s fine to be questioned, it really is. Throughout University, we were. It allows us to not get stuck in a rut, to reflect on our approaches, as well as develop our professional practice, but it’s not OK to feel as though what you do is less important than somebody else, or that you lack the knowledge to do something you trained hard for.
Like a young person, whatever your role, if you have worked hard to question, to gain knowledge and experience, to understand and find your niche, then you have become an expert in your field. Thus, your views are important, and they need to be heard, you need to be heard, and if you’re not, then just like a child would, seek your answers and support elsewhere. Allow yourself to take a different path and flourish as you so rightly deserve, surrounded by those who will listen, and truly hear.