Focus Area 3: Communications
1. The Art Of Communication

Have you ever spent time with someone who really makes you feel understood? Most of us very much want to feel like other people understand us.

That need to be listened to, completely heard, and feel deeply understood is especially important to young people, although it may not always seem like it on the surface.

One of the best gifts you can give another person is the gift of listening deeply. It is rare, unfortunately. But you have the power to change that!

If a young person feels someone is not listening or not paying attention, it can be a real turnoff. They’ll quickly tune you out. Or worse, you could damage the trusting relationship you have built over time and that would be harmful to the young person. But when a young person feels understood and respected, it is a rare and treasured gift.

Creating and sustaining trust requires being really thoughtful in your communication. And that trusting relationship between a young person and you, as a caring adult, is the real magic that makes any youth programming work best. 


There are three types of communication:

  1. Non-verbal communication
    • Research has shown that the majority of communication is transmitted non-verbally, sometimes as much as 70% of communication is conveyed through body language alone.
  1. Listening
    • Have you ever heard the saying, “There’s a reason you have two ears and one mouth – you should listen more than you speak!” So, listening outranks speaking on this list.
  1. Speaking
    • Many of us tend to think our words are what carry so much meaning and impact. It may seem hard to believe but in fact the spoken word makes up only about 7% of communication. But the way you say things – your voice tone and inflection – account for about 23% of meaning in spoken messages. 


You probably have heard “Your actions speak louder than words.” Youth workers really have to be acutely aware of this aspect of communication because without a doubt, young people are always watching you. And they’re great at picking up on any discrepancies between what you say and what you do.

Some non-verbal communications are listed below. Some may come naturally to you, while others may require practice. As you practice, there are two things to remember about your non-verbal communication:

  1. Cultural backgrounds will influence how young people and adults react to non-verbals, with reactions differing depending on the cultural background. Be flexible.
  2. Carrying an attitude of sincere listening can make it more natural and help pull all these attending skills together.

Non-verbal communication includes: 

Eye Contact: Making eye contact conveys that you are paying attention. However, avoid staring at the person. Comfortably looking at the other person’s face about 90% of the time is a good rule of thumb. 

Posture: Facing the other person squarely is a good bet. To convey ‘openness,’ keep a relaxed, open posture with your upper body and avoid crossing your arms. When seated, lean slightly toward the other person at least some of the time. This will convey interest and caring. 

Movements: Lightly nodding from time to time will help convey that you are listening and taking in what the other person is saying. Avoid fidgeting and similar movements. 

Voice: Varying your tone, volume and speed of speaking conveys that you are attending to what the speaker is saying. There are many ways to do this. Examples include:

  • “Mirroring” which involves trying to match the tone, volume, and speed of the other person talking. Exact matching isn’t required and would feel awkward (don't do that!). Still, mirroring is worth a try to the degree you can do it naturally. With practice, you will figure out when it is most helpful.
  • Choosing a tone, volume, or speed different from the other person talking. This can be useful especially in helping a young person get unstuck from an unproductive negative focus.

Remember, cultural differences may mean you need to adapt the strategies outlined here. You have to always pay attention to whether or not your communication is working. When you notice that it is not so effective, change it to make it more comfortable for the person you are communicating with!


    Listening is the skill of receiving a spoken message. Would it surprise you to learn that human beings have the ability to listen at nearly twice the speed the average person talks? It's true!

    We generally speak at a rate of about 125 to 150 words per minute, but we can hear, process, and analyze speech at a rate of about 400 to 800 words per minute. That bit of a gap could help explain why many of us are such impatient listeners.

    Attending is the skill of giving your physical attention to the person who is speaking. This is not often talked about but it is a skill that can really improve the quality of your communication. In effect, you’re using your body language (non-verbal communication) to let the other person know you are genuinely interested in what they have to say. It's another way of saying be fully present.

    Good attending behaviors include:

    • Comfortable eye contact – not staring, but looking at the other person naturally
    • Relaxed posture - lean slightly forward in a relaxed way, opening your body posture to show no tension
    • Gestures of agreement – nod your head now and then
    • Positive facial expressions – an easy smile, a look of amused interest or curiosity can speak volumes


    Well, even though the spoken word accounts for so little of the meaning of our communication, it is still an important skill and you can always work on ways to refine and improve it.

    Some general guidelines to help you be a better speaker:

    • Be honest and specific
    • Pay attention to the listener’s reactions and their non-verbal communication – that’s the key to determining whether or not you, as the speaker, are getting your intended message across to them. If not, adjust! Don’t make the listener have to work at figuring out what you mean for them to hear.
    • Monitor your tone of voice – make it fit the message you’re saying
    • Match your facial expression to your message
    • Use “I” statements rather than “you” statements. Most people hear “you” messages as a criticism, a complaint, or a put down of some sort. To avoid eliciting defensiveness, a good practice is to be mindful to start sentences with “I,” particularly when communicating how someone’s behaviors or words have impacted you. Saying “You hurt me” is less effective than saying “I felt hurt when you (specific action).”



    Think of communication channels as a way to process information. There are three primary communication channels:

    1. Auditory (listening/hearing)
    2. Visual (seeing)
    3. Kinesthetic (feeling/sensing/action)

    Most of us use all three channels to some extent. Many of us do have a stronger bias toward or preference for one channel over the others. And we give clues about our preference when we speak.

    If you have an Auditory channel preference, you’ll tend to use words and phrases like:

    • Do you hear what I’m saying?
    • Does that ring a bell?
    • That sounds interesting…
    • Let me tell you about…
    • The clues are all about words and phrases that call out auditory nuances: Earful, Shout, Say, Express, Mention, Inquire, Voice, Utter, Roar, Hear me out, Tuned in, Unheard of…

    People that prefer the auditory channel tend to speak at a pretty moderate pace, and often use lots of inflection and vocal variation, as if they are making music with their words.

    If you have a Visual channel preference, you’ll tend to use words and phrases like:

    • Do you see what I’m saying?
    • Does that appear to be true?
    • That looks interesting…
    • Let me show you…
    • The clues are all about words and phrases that call out visual nuances: Beyond a shadow of a doubt, View, Focus, Fuzzy, Observe, Clear, Image, Mental picture, Mind’s eye, Hazy idea, Observe…

    People that prefer the visual channel tend to speak at a faster pace, as if pictures are rapid-firing in their brain as they think and speak.

    If you have a Kinesthetic channel preference, you’ll tend to use words and phrases like:

    • Do you have a handle on what I’m saying?
    • Does that grab you?
    • That feels right to me…
    • Let me touch on that…
    • The clues are all about words and phrases that call out feeling/movement/sensation: Stand out, Take up, Whip into shape, Boil down, Deep, Hands-on, Keep your shirt on, Tight, Uptight, Stir up, Hanging on…

    People that prefer the kinesthetic/feeling  channel tend to speak at a noticeably slower pace, as if they are literally feeling every word they say.

    How is this useful to you as a youth worker?

    One of the fastest and surest ways to quickly build rapport with another person is to match their communication channel preference.

    Just don’t overdo it. You definitely do not want to mimic their style completely (that could seem rude), you just want to use the same sort of communication channel words and phrases.

    You can get a lot of practice in this skill area as you watch TV or listen to the radio. Pay attention to the speaker’s words and phrases and see if you can pick out their channel preference. When you feel like you’ve developed a good ear for it, move up to trying it for real in your day-to-day communication. 


    When your words, your facial expressions, your body language, your tone of voice all match up to the message you’re trying to deliver, that’s known as being congruent.

    An excellent way to practice being congruent, and build your skill to notice incongruence in communication, is to find a partner and try to tell them about the best day of your life while exhibiting the body language and vocal qualities of a person who is feeling miserable at the moment.

    You’ll be communicating in an incongruent way – your words about the best day of your life will not match your non-verbal communication or the tone of your voice. Then ask your partner to give you their impression. Did they believe you? Did they trust that you were telling the truth? What did they think about the exchange?

    This is a powerful exercise that will help you learn how important it is to be congruent in order to correctly convey the meaning of your message when communicating with someone else.


    If you can operate from the perspective that the meaning of your communication is the response it elicits, you will be taking full ownership of making sure any message you send will be correctly received. You’ll relieve the listener of the obligation to just “get” it. You’ll put the responsibility on yourself as the speaker.

    There’s an instantaneous shift in the quality of your communication when you come from this point of view. You won’t find yourself frustrated by the other person as often. You’ll find yourself being less judgmental and more patient in your communication.

    To do this well, you need to become a conscious observer. Watch the body language of the person you’re speaking with. If it isn’t matching your message, your meaning is most likely being missed.

    If the other person’s response to you says that they’re not understanding you, don’t blame or judge them. Just take a pause and give your message in another way, making sure you’re being congruent.

    The perspective and mindset you want to adopt is “the meaning of my communication is the response it elicits.”

    If you mean to make someone smile with your words but you observe their response is a frown, the meaning you intended was not received. Try again. 


    A big part of who you are and how you communicate is the result of the stories you tell yourself – all the time!

    Self-talk can be both a blessing and a curse. This internal dialogue frames our responses to whatever we experience in life.

    It’s very common to fall into a pattern of negative self-talk. We remember things that have happened to us, lessons learned along the way through sometimes painful experience, we have mulled them over and replayed them like a broken record. Negative self-talk, left unquestioned, can cause feelings of anger, doubt, fear, guilt, loss of confidence, and frustration.

    Get in the habit of noticing your self-talk. When a negative message strikes you, counter it with a true example of a time you did better. When negative experiences happen, choose a positive story to tell yourself about it. It’s not self-deception. There is always something positive you can find about any situation.

    Practice positive self-talk every day. Teach the young people you work with how to do this for themselves. You’ll be building resiliency in them while role modeling a very positive habit and behavior.

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