How to Show a Child you are a Compassionate Listener

In this blog, Nigel Lowson will offer safeguarding professionals some of the most proven ways to engage in difficult conversations around sensitive or challenging topics with children and young people as well as a report that the NSPCC released based on research that focused on how children felt when they were giving a disclosure.

In July 2019 the NSPCC (National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children) in the UK reported on some research that focused on how children felt when they were giving a disclosure. They considered over 1500 replies to a survey which they combined with the deliberation of focus groups and interviews with both adults and children to produce their results. The report was titled No-One Noticed, No-One Heardand stressed three points for us all to remember at disclosure time: 

  1. Show you care, help them open up
  2. Take your time, slow down
  3. Show you understand, reflect back

The aim of this research by the NSPCC and their subsequent training is the same as this post and the accompanying webinar to this post - how to have a disclosure conversation that is comfortable, engaging, successful, and complete for both parties. This post examines how the adult can not only be a compassionate listener but one who evokes that feeling from the child.  

Studies in the field of body language have shown that it takes only 20 seconds for someone to feel if a person is compassionate. So, the first few seconds of an interaction with a child (or indeed anyone) is crucial. The best advice I can offer you for those first few seconds when a child appears at your door wishing to talk with you which might or might not lead to a disclosure is simple: be welcoming. Immediately. Be welcoming your body and your voice. In practice, this means a gentle, ready smile upon your lips, an open posture as you raise if seated to meet the child, and warmth in the tone of your comments. Even a momentary appearance of frustration, annoyance, or suchlike will be picked up and may well prevent any or full disclosure.  



Once you have ascertained this conversation may be an important one (this is usually very apparent pretty quickly) be sure to switch your phones to silent, close the laptop, tell your secretary (if you have one!) that you are not be disturbed, be sure you are in a safe, private space where you will not be overheard, and arrange cover for any other commitments that might be on your immediate horizon. And please do these with calmness and gentleness so the child does not feel like an inconvenience.  

This can be extremely difficult I know - I remember quite a few occasions when a child would tentatively appear at my door whilst I was up to my eyes in work, often on the phone engaged in a difficult conversation with a parent. I know that my immediate reaction was not as positive and engaging as I would have liked but I found an apology for being busy accompanied by inviting them to sit down, asking whether they would like a cup of tea and an assurance that I will be with them 100% as soon as I made my very quick arrangements settled them. In fact, talking to children afterward, they felt the minute or two this took allowed them too to settle and gather their nerves. The first step of appearing at my door was a very hard one for many. 

Showing you care was the first of the NSPCC directions which we know is vital. Showing this means being a good listener and by this, I’m using a phrase a child said to me once when I asked how the staff could help in such situations - ‘just be a compassionate listener’. Not everyone naturally is or appears to be, a compassionate listener. 


Top Tips

If you wish to increase the chances of being seen as a compassionate listener the following tips will be of value because they work: 

Listen with your whole body 

  • be sure your body language is open so please no crossed arms or legs and try not to have a physical barrier between you such as an imposing desk or arms interlocked on any table between you 
  • do not give the impression of being too relaxed - for example, no feet on chairs, no slouching in the chair, no biting of nails, no hands in pockets, no fiddling with glasses or other objects 
  • if sitting sideways turn your body towards the child, if sitting opposite try to be at a slight angle so that the positioning is not thought to be intimidating 
  • use ‘approach’ signals for example lean inwards slightly rather than away 

Use ’connective gestures’ 

  • when appropriate use these with subtlety so as not to interrupt the child 
  • they include open palms, smiles, nods of the head, mirroring of posture, comments such as “mm” or “uh-hah”, a brief physical contact such as a touch on the shoulder - these encourage openness in the receiver 
  • avoid a staring match, copying every gesture that is made by the child, stretching your arms and legs  

Beware of your facial expressions

  • have a soft focus on your eyes by allowing them to be not too wide so that you appear staring and not too narrow so that your forehead is furrowed - this middle way prevents you from appearing too intense or intimidating  
  • focus your vision on the triangle created by the two eyes and the mouth - this will allow you to see the full facial expressions of the child and breaks the eye-to-eye contact which increases confidence in the receiver 
  • a slight, brief rise in the eyebrows with a gentle rippling or tightening of the forehead shows concern but be sure this is not too powerful a signal as it then represents shock and upset which can stop a child from telling all 
  • The same applies to the pursing of lips 
  • try to avoid fiddling with your hair or scratching your nose as these can be interpreted as signals of untrustworthiness 
  • briefly touching your cheek or stroking your chin shows an interest in what is being said 
  • tilting your head to one side slightly for a moment or two exposes your neck and this vulnerability gesture boosts confidence in your listening and ease with what is being mentioned from the recipient 

Body language is especially important in expressing feelings and attitudes, and children are adept at reading it. If you can, ensure your non-verbal language when you are listening to a child who is disclosing to you presents a compassionate listener, then the child will be more likely to disclose fully, be more confident, and feel supported. Now that’s a result worth working towards, I think! 

Posted Date

8th June 2021

Nigel Lowson
Wellbeing Teacher and Author

Related resources