The role of nonverbal communication in building rapport

Freeman and Mathison (2009) states the effectiveness of child-focussed research conversations lie in the closeness of the interaction between researcher and their participants. What can promote this closeness is an aura of all-inclusiveness. To do this, adopt the principles of ensuring equal opportunity; valuing diversity and recognizing every child has their own unique individual story to tell. This is because children will quickly work out whether you have an interest in them or just want to extract information. Inclusiveness is best promoted via open body language, that is, smiles, eye contact, laughter (if appropriate), as well as adopting a welcome which is presented in the right tone and manner. So, for example a warm, engaged, interested researcher who introduces themselves on first- name terms might say with a smile and happy tone: “Hello Chloe, welcome, it is really good to meet you. My name is Jonathan, but you can call me Jon”. Children need to see you care via your expressive body language which must not be over the top as this can risk being patronizing. It is also important to remember that body language can give clues as to the researcher’s level of comfort and competence. Children and teenagers, like adults, tend to be very attentive to non-verbal communication and it is these non-verbal cues that can have an impact on the way they perceive their role in the researching process and the relationship they then adopt with you in that process.

Appropriate humour and laughter are also important because it can break down many barriers and promote engagement with children. It is useful to ask yourself, prior to engaging with your young participants, how you may in your professional role appropriately share a sense of fun and humour when engaging with them.

Promoting enquiry and asking the questions

Formulating the right questions, considering the child’s development age and understanding, is especially important when undertaking qualitative research with children and to some degree must also be considered when developing closed- and open-ended survey questions for quantitative research with children. A rule of thumb when undertaking a child-centred enquiry is only ask young people/children questions that they can answer from their own experience. So, do not, for instance, ask them about nature walks unless they have experienced a nature walk. An important point to remember is that unlike many adults, younger children tend to live in the present and are less pre-occupied with the past or the future. Try to incorporate the flexibility into your question cue or prompt sheet that encourages them to talk about their everyday lives, allowing them (considering the parameters of your research) to have the flexibility to talk about what matters to them. So, think twice (and reflexively) about adopting a very structured question technique for interview or focus groups. Good interview cue sheets should identify broad areas for discussion with some prompt questions if needed, but it should not be a battery of questions which make the young people feel interrogated or tested because they feel the need to give the “right” answers. The aim is to encourage open discussion with both boys and girls which facilitates the process of them sharing the reality of their lives, in their way, and from their perspective.

When questions are asked it is important to be prepared to phrase your questions in lots of different ways, just in case the child does not comprehend your question or its focus. Remember also that what one child understanding won't be what another understands, so be versatile in finding ways of saying the same thing. If using questionnaires, pilot or trial them with children of the same age, prior to using them real time. This ensures the language and the way the question is structured is comprehendible to the child group you are targeting. Tania witnessed a very good example of the need to do this, when sitting in a school reception listening to two young boys around 11 years of age completing a questionnaire together. One boy read one of the questions out aloud: “What do you need to be a good listener?” They paused, then the other boy said, “1 know, ears”. They then moved on to the next question. She was sure that was not the information the questionnaire designer desired!

In most cases, the right open-ended questions will encourage the right feedback. My tips being move away from using "how” and “why” questions all the time, but try to use the child’s words to frame your next question. For example: Raj, a young participant, says: “attending the stress management group at CAMHS really helps me to relax”. The Researcher replies: “Tell me Raj how does the stress management group help you do that?”. Indeed, research has shown that using the child’s own words, for example with a “you said x” preface does encourage elaboration (see Karim et al., this volume; Kiyimba et al., this volume).

Also, do not be afraid to use affirming statements supporting their strengths so for instance you may ask questions like: “So that was brave, what did you do next?” “That’s sounds like you did well there Tell me more”. It is very important, however, not to ask leading questions as these have no place in research. For example, questions such as "What are you feeling, confusion?” run the risk of diluting your data as they may influence the child’s response.

It may be more appropriate when enquiring into a sensitive topic to step carefully making sure a child feels comfortable answering your questions. In some situations, you might use third-person questions, that is, “What do you think other children would say about ...”, or “What do you think your best friend might say to this question ...”. Third-party questions often feel less intrusive than more directed personal questions and it is surprising how quickly young people move from third-party discussion to speaking about themselves.

Using reflective statements

Active listening is paramount to effectively engage. This is done by listening carefully to what the child or young person has to say as well as conveying via open body language and spoken language that you have heard and understand. Active listening can promote the child’s feeling of comfort and a sense that what they are saying is valued. This then provides them with a sense of confidence enabling them to continue expressing their own opinions and perceptions. In order to ensure correct interpretation, it is always important when communicating with children to seek additional clarification whenever necessary and reflect or summarise their response to confirm accuracy. This sends a very clear message to your young participant that you have heard. The below examples are taken directly from a one to one interview with a young participant who was sharing some sensitive information related to her mental health (anxiety and obsessional compulsive behaviour disorder (OCD)). She was describing a difficult school experience associated with it. It was, therefore, important to keep the neutral researcher focus but also convey empathy. You will notice questions are not used; however, reflection is used and acts as an enquiring tool as she soon went on to elaborate on her experience:

Young Person:

"Yer. because in science classes when we have done an experiment even if it is nothing to do with chemicals I still have to wash my hands and my teacher will get cross with me and she will say oh fine you will not do another exam, another experiment next time, I am like ... coz I was fussing, I was worried about getting things on my hands and I made them sore”.


“She didn’t understand about you needing to wash your hands”.

This reflection, concisely summed up her feeling - note no question was asked; however; the child choose to tell me more about the difficult question.

Young Person:

“Yer I shouted at her in front of the whole class because I was so stressed and I said I have got OCD I can’t help it. She was like OCD is not that much of a problem, not a problem really. Then I got moved because I was being fidgety and noisy in class and everything because I was clicking my pen because it keeps me distracted concentrating and this other girl was getting annoyed with me and she started yelling at me and then I got moved”.


“It sounded like you were having a difficult time with your OCD and not being understood and when people do not have any understanding, it sounds like it can be very tough”.

This was a more complex reflection, summarizing what she had said but conveyed empathy. Once again, no questions were asked but the child went onto tell me more.

Young Person:

“The teachers even asked my mum if she had got information about OCD, she said no she hadn’t, I am not sure, it could be, quite rude to ask that because you should know about it already ... but yer ... bad".

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