How active listening helps you be a great volunteer

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Tim Kidd, UK Chief Commissioner explains how listening helps us live our values of care, respect and cooperation while supporting young people and volunteers 

I sometimes reflect on what it takes to be a great volunteer. As I travel up and down the country, I meet so many inspiring adults in Scouting, often with very different skills and qualities, so it’s quite difficult to pin this down to just a few. I certainly believe that a generosity of spirit, a sense of optimism and empathy are among the things you need. But there’s one thing I think that is common to all great volunteers – and that’s being an active listener. 

To give it a technical definition, active listening means understanding, responding to and remembering what was said. Some volunteers instinctively have this skill, but if you feel this is not your strongest suit, the good news is that it can also be learnt.  

Being there to listen to people’s concerns, ideas and achievements is such a powerful thing. When you genuinely and actively listen to someone, you are showing that you value them and their opinions. Just think about our Scout values of Care, Respect and Cooperation – listening is a way of expressing or promoting each one of these. One of our key roles when working with young people is to support them in their learning, and learning is all about listening. 

That’s why I was so pleased to hear that recent YouGov research revealed that 91% of UK adults who stated an opinion believe the Scouts help young people develop active listening skills.  

 

Let’s just be clear on one thing. Listening is not just about hearing. I’m so proud that we have amazing volunteers who also have full or partial hearing loss. Often these volunteers are the best listeners – it’s about being attentive, watching for visual as well as verbal signs and giving people the time and space to express themselves. 

Here are five simple way you can use active listening as a volunteer. It’s worth reflecting on which of these you are already using, and which you need to develop.  This is something that I know I am not always as good as I should be, and I keep reminding myself on how to develop and be better.

  1. 1.     Give your full attention 

On a busy Scout night, with so much noise and distractions, this can be easier said than done. But giving a young person or adult your full attention is a powerful way of showing active listening. Find a quiet space if you can, maintain eye contact and don’t be tempted to look over the person’s shoulder or glance at your watch or phone. 

  1. 2.     Use positive body language 

Think about your posture; folded arms for example, can be perceived as a barrier. When appropriate, smile and nod to show that you are listening. Mirroring the speaker’s expression for example when they are showing concern can also be a sign you are understanding as well as listening. 

  1. 3.     Use verbal cues, but give people space to speak  

One of the hardest things for the active listener is keeping quiet. Often it can be tempting to share your own experience. Give the speaker the time and space to air their thoughts. However, small verbal cues, such as ‘I see,’ and ‘yes,’ can show that your listening and will encourage them to continue to share. 

  1. 4.     Keep an open mind

It’s so easy to rush to solutions or assumptions after hearing the gist of what is being said. However the most important information might be given later in the conversation. Keeping an open mind and reserving judgement will encourage the person to share as much as possible. 

  1. 5.     Ask questions and summarise 

Asking relevant questions to improve your understanding can also be useful, but keep these focused on the subject. Summarising the key points (without adding your own) also proves you have been listening attentively.          

Active listening will help you build trust with the young people in your care. Knowing that you are a good listener means people are much more likely to come to you with a question or concern, so then problems won’t get stored up. Young people will also be more likely to share their opinions and ideas on the programme, helping promote youth-shaped at the Scouts too. 

The same goes for adult volunteers in your team. Often disagreements or misunderstandings between adults in Scouting stem from not listening to each other properly. Use active listening to really get to know the others on your team – it will build closer bonds and you’ll be a stronger team as a result.  

 

I heard a great quote: ‘One of the most sincere forms of respect is to listen carefully to what someone else has to say.’ Let’s remember that and role model it for those around us.  Thanks for listening, and for everything you do to help our young people develop skills for life. 

 

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