How we make sure young people are both seen AND heard

Working with hard to reach youth audiences is about cultivating cultures of dignity

Engaging young, disaffected people in research can be a challenge. And this is something we know all too well from our own experience. When attempting to engage this audience, we’ve come up against defensive disinterest at best, or quiet rage at worst. When we are conducting sensitive issues research, we need to create an environment in which young people can recognise their own self-worth. If this happens, they can begin to take the plunge into meaningful self-reflection and begin to trust a process in which they are safe to express these reflections to someone else.

We loved Rosalind Warren’s recent RSA talk on “cultivating cultures of dignity”. What she means is that young people today need to feel a sense of their own value in order to be engaged and happy members of society. This principle very much reflects our experience of researching young hard to reach audiences.

Creating a culture of dignity

Striving to create a research space which allows everyone in the room to respect each other, relies on treating your research participants with dignity. This is an important lesson when thinking about engaging young hard to reach audiences in research. We should always speak to them as equals. We need to appreciate that their lives are complex; and understand that there must be a good reason for their anger/resistance. Through acknowledging this, we can begin to encourage them to engage.

We recently spoke to young homeless people aged 16-24 years old. Our objective was to understand their experiences of homelessness and to help develop tools to empower them to better their situation. Here’s what we learned.

Three lessons for creating a respectful research space


Your choice of venue can go a long way in facilitating thoughtful self-reflection and focused engagement

The venue you choose for this type of research should always be neutral. An environment with pre-existing dynamics – be they social or emotional – means the space is not neutral ground for the exploration of people’s experiences and needs.

Instead, choose a neutral yet unintimidating space, e.g. a chain hotel meeting room. The room should be peaceful and shut off from distractions. This will serve as a safe space removed from participant’s everyday lives.

Pay close attention to group dynamics

It takes time to build trust with individuals and the group. People need to feel safe before they’re able to look inwards and share their complex needs. The moderator should show each participant respect by fostering a non-judgemental space, where everyone is held in “unconditional positive regard”.  One-to-one depth interviews or mini-groups (i.e. triads or quads) will help create a more intimate environment.

An even split of young women and men also facilitates better overall levels of engagement. We’ve found that young women can often be more open and self-aware, and less boisterous and bravado-driven than male participants. Having mixed mini-groups means the young men can be positively influenced by their female contemporaries. This will also help to balance the chances of dominant participants (often young men) performing to the group, and more reserved participants (often young women) taking a back seat and shying away from sharing – which proves a barrier to meaningful engagement.

This audience can be distractible, and group banter can easily derail focused conversation. These moments may be important for building rapport. But controlling the group and maintaining focus is a key challenge when moderating research with these audiences. It’s therefore important to be clear with your objectives and what you want from your time with the group. Make sure to re-root the discussion if the conversation veers off track.

Help your young people unlock the language they need to describe their situation

Many do not have the tools or language to articulate their own thoughts and feelings to themselves – let alone begin communicating their experiences to others. It’s therefore integral that any research is designed in an accessible way which helps to equip them with the relevant “language” to talk about their experiences. This can be through projective exercises using images, word/feelings lists, associative mind-maps, etc.

Some participants may feel more comfortable asking a friend to speak on their behalf if they don’t feel confident voicing their own feelings. Using friendship pairs is a positive way of building out young people’s experiences and needs. And it goes a long way in creating a safe and supportive space.

Through paying close attention to these factors and creating a research environment in which your young participants are treated with dignity, you will not only honour their lives and experiences but create richly fertile ground for understanding them.