28 October 2014

 I am the head of Talent Match London – a programme funded by the Big Lottery Fund that is all about working out what works in supporting young people aged 18-24 into positive, productive futures. We develop youth-led local partnerships designed to address all aspects of a young person’s life, so I am delighted to be involved in the Connecting Policy with Practice programme, which this year is exploring issues around service-user involvement and ‘whole-person’ solutions.

‘The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place’.
George Bernard Shaw

How often do you feel confident that the words you have used have had the impact you intended?

I spent years working as a Careers Adviser, where my role was to help people explore their aims, motivations and decision-making techniques to best equip them to move positively through their career journey. I know that the way I, and the people I support (both professionally and personally) approach the words we use, has a significant impact on how that discussion goes. Building a relationship with a young person whose experiences of education and work to date have been negative takes time and skill, and can be really taken backwards by asking ‘What’s the problem?’ when perhaps there wasn’t one, or ‘That must be holding you back then?’ when the individual had thought of their situation as a positive factor.

The words we use in everyday interaction are important, and for some professions, a focus on this forms part of our training – although in my opinion, for teachers and youth workers, not enough.

Language use can also refer to acronyms and technical language or jargon . Previously the way in which those in the know communicated, “the language of youth work” was relatively opaque – but increasingly some of these words have become part of the mainstream lexicon – especially as “social problems” become, or are perceived to become, more significant. I will never forget trying to explain to a child with autism and his parents why he was having a ‘Section 139a’ meeting at school and the time it took to translate all the boxes they had been asked to fill in, into plain English.

In my current role, as part of the Leadership Team at London Youth, we work to principles about our communication – it should reflect our approach to how we work with young people; it should be positive, non-judgemental and focus on what the person brings to a situation, rather than what they lack. You won’t catch us using ‘NEET’ for example, in a funding bid, on our website or as we chat to young people around the office. But what would really change if we did? Does the way we speak to and about young people make a difference to the situation they are in? And if so, can anything be done in policy terms to reflect this?

Together with my project partner Jenny, who works at the Home Office on early offending and violence, I will be exploring these kinds of questions through the rest of the Connecting Policy with Practiceprogramme. At the beginning of the programme we were challenged to identify a particular set of problems that relate to the ways in which policymakers and commissioners engage with their service users (or fail to do so). It seems likely that language conditions and affects the way that policymakers’ decisions and their efforts to help their service users, are received. This issue is one that we need to understand better. We’d love to hear your thoughts, evidence or ideas, so please do get in touch or leave a comment below.