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Listening

The receiving, retaining and processing of information or ideas
This skill is all about being able to effectively receive information - whether it comes from customers, colleagues or stakeholders.

Initially, the skill steps concentrate on being able to listen effectively to others - including remembering short instructions, understanding why others are communication and recording important information.

Individuals then focus on how they demonstrate that they are listening effectively, thinking about body language, open questioning and summarising and rephrasing.

Beyond that, the focus is on being aware of how they might be being influenced by a speaker, through tone and language.

The final steps are about critical listening - comparing perspectives, identifying biases, evaluating ideas and being objective.

Speaking

The oral transmission of information or ideas
This skill is all about how to communicate effectively with others, being mindful of whether they are talking to customers, colleagues or other stakeholders and in different settings.

Initially, this skill focuses on being able to speak clearly - first with well known individuals and small groups and then with those who are not known.

The next stage is about being an effective speaker by making points logically, by thinking about what listeners already know and using appropriate language, tone and gesture.

Beyond that, individuals focus on speaking engagingly through use of facts and examples, visual aids, and their expression and gesture.

Beyond that stage, speakers will be adaptive to the response of their listeners and ready for different scenarios. The final steps focus on speaking influentially - using structure, examples, facts and vision to persuade listeners.

Problem Solving

The ability to find a solution to a situation or challenge
This skill focuses on how to solve problems, recognising that while part of Problem Solving is technical know-how and experience, there are also transferable tools that individuals can develop and use.

The first steps focus on being able to follow instructions to complete tasks, seeking help and extra information if needed. The next stage focuses on being able to explore problems by creating and assessing different potential solutions. This includes more complex problems, without a simple technical solution.

Beyond this, the focus is on exploring complex solutions - thinking about causes and effects, generating options, and evaluating those options. This extends into analysis using logical reasoning and hypotheses.

Finally, individuals implement strategic plans to solve complex problems, assess their success, and draw out learning for the future.

Creativity

The use of imagination and the generation of new ideas
Creativity is the complement to Problem Solving, and is about generating innovations or ideas which can then be honed through the problem-solving process.

The first few steps focus on the individual's confidence in imagining different situations and sharing their ideas.

The focus is then on generating ideas - using a clear brief, making improvements to something that already exists and combining concepts.

Individuals then apply creativity in the context of their work and their wider life. They can build off this to develop ideas using tools like mind mapping, questioning, and considering different perspectives.

The most advanced steps focus on building effective innovation in group settings and by seeking out varied experiences and stimuli. Finally, individuals support others to innovate, by sharing tools, identifying the right tools for the situation and through coaching.

Staying Positive

The ability to use tactics and strategies to overcome setbacks and achieve goals
This skill is all about individuals being equipped to manage their emotions effectively and being able to remain motivated, and ultimately to motivate others, even when facing setbacks.

The early steps focus on identifying emotions - particularly feeling positive or negative. Building off that is the ability to keep trying - and then staying calm, thinking about what went wrong, and trying to cheer up and encourage others.

The focus then turns to identifying new opportunities in difficult situations, sharing those, and adapting or creating plans accordingly. At more advanced steps, individuals identify and manage risks and gains in opportunities.

Finally, individuals support others to stay positive by managing their own response, helping others to see opportunities and creating plans to achieve them.

Aiming High

The ability to set clear, tangible goals and devise a robust route to achieving them
This skill is about being able to plan effectively - both to achieve organisational goals, and also to set their own personal development targets. Initially, this is about knowing when something is too difficult, and having a sense of what doing well looks like for an individual.

The focus is then about working with care and attention, taking pride in success and having a positive approach to new challenges. Building on this, individuals set goals for themselves, informed by an understanding of what is needed, and then be able to order and prioritise tasks, secure resources and involve others effectively.

At the higher steps, the focus is creating plans informed by an individual's skill set, with clear targets, and building on external views. At the most advanced level, individuals develop long-term strategies. These are informed by an assessment of internal and external factors, structured through regular milestones and feedback loops.

Leadership

Supporting, encouraging and developing others to achieve a shared goal
This skill is relevant not only for individuals in positions of management with formal power, but also for individuals working with peers in teams.

At the earliest stages, the focus is on basic empathy - understanding their own feelings, being able to share them, and recognising the feelings of others. The focus is on managing - dividing up tasks, managing time and sharing resources, managing group discussions and dealing with disagreements.

Beyond that, individuals build their awareness of their own strengths and weaknesses, and those of their teams. This allows them to allocate tasks effectively. They then build techniques to mentor, coach and motivate others. At the highest steps, individuals will be able to reflect on their own leadership style and understand its effect on others.

Ultimately, they should be able to build on their strengths and mitigate their weaknesses, and adapt their leadership style to the situation.

Teamwork

Working cooperatively with others towards achieving a shared goal
This skill applies to working within both formal and informal teams, and also with customers, clients or other stakeholders. Initially, this is about individuals fulfilling expectations around being positive, behaving appropriately, being timely and reliable and taking responsibility. This extends to understanding and respecting diversity of others' cultures, beliefs and backgrounds.

The next steps focus on making a contribution to a team through group decision making recognising the value of others' ideas and encourage others to contribute too.Beyond that, individuals improve their teams through managing conflict and building relationships beyond the immediate team. At the top steps, individuals focus on how they influence their team through suggesting improvements and learning lessons from setbacks.

Ultimately, individuals support the team by evaluating others strengths and weaknesses and bringing in external expertise and relationships.

To achieve Step 9, individuals will have to understand what is meant by ‘tone’, how it varies and what the impact of different tones of communicating can be.  

In earlier steps, the focus was on listening effectively and demonstrating listening. This step, and Step 10, focus on increasing listeners’ understanding of how they could be influenced by the speaker.

Building blocks

The building blocks of this step are learning how to:

  • What tone is and how it matters
  • The elements of tone and what they can mean 
  • How we can decipher tone as a listener

Reflection questions

  • How can our voices change when we are speaking? 
  • What do you understand by ‘tone’ in the context of listening?
  • How can tone vary? Can you give examples? 
  • How do you think each of the elements of tone affect the listener? 
  • Why is it important as a listener to pay attention to tone, not just the words?

What you need to know

How can we change the meaning of what we say

For now, imagine that someone is saying the same thing. For example, “Could you get that piece of work to me tomorrow?” 

Without changing the words, the way that sounds and the meaning that it has can change a lot depending on the way that someone says those words. 

  • That simple sentence could sound positive – that you are doing them a favour by getting the piece of work done for tomorrow.
  • Or it could sound exasperated – the implication being that the piece of work should have been done today or sooner.
  • It might sound relaxed –that the notion of getting the piece of work done for tomorrow would be great, but it is a question where you could plausibly offer to get it done for some other point.
  • Or it might sound like a direct instruction – that it is not a question at all.

It is amazing how much meaning comes from the way that something is said, rather than just what is being said.

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What is tone?

We can refer to this way that something is said as the tone of speaking. This tone varies by several dimensions:

  • Pitch: This about how high or low someone is speaking 
  • Tempo: How quickly someone is speaking 
  • Volume: This is how loudly or quietly someone is speaking
  • Intonation: This is about where the emphasis is placed on different words
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The elements of tone and what they mean

We can see how changes in tone have different effects on listeners:

Element

The Variation

The Effect on the listener

Pitch: How high or low someone is speaking 

Someone speaks with a high pitch

The speaker can seem stressed or anxious, which might be interpreted as lacking confidence or not being honest

Someone speaks with a low pitch

The speaker can seem calm and more confident. However, they might seem less energetic or engaged

Tempo: How quickly someone is speaking

Someone speaks quickly

The speaker can seem energetic and engaged. However, they might also seem stressed or anxious.  

Someone speaks slowly

The speaker can seem more authoritative and calm. However, if they speak too slowly they might seem unengaged.

Volume: How loudly or quietly someone is speaking

Someone speaks quietly

The speaker can appear calm and in control if they speak quietly. However, if they speak too quietly they might seem to be lacking in confidence. 

Someone speaks loudly

The speaker can seem authoritative if they speak loudly – it suggests that they are in control. However, if they are too loud it can seem aggressive or angry. 

Intonation: This is about where the emphasis is placed on different words

Someone uses falling intonation – where the voice falls at the end of a phrase

The speaker sounds confident in what they are saying – perhaps they are giving an instruction.

Someone uses rising intonation – where the voice rises at the end of a phrase

The speaker sounds like they are asking a question. 

Someone uses falling and rising intonation

The speaker sounds like they are not sure about what they are saying – they are open to discussion. It can also be a way of softening a direct question. 

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Deciphering tone: different emotions

Of course, these different elements of tone can all be used in a variety of different ways. The combination that is used can suggest:

Different emotions: As listeners, we might be able to interpret something of how the speaker is feeling depending on their tone. 

  • Anger could be suggested by a loud voice and falling intonation 
  • Anxiety could be suggested by speaking quickly and with a high pitch 
  • Confidence could be suggested by a moderate volume and steady pace of speaking
  • Excitement could be suggested by a louder voice and quick speaking
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Deciphering tone: the purpose of the communication

The purpose of the communication: As listeners, we can also infer the purpose of the communication from the tone (this was touched on in Step 4). For example:

  • Instructions tend to have a falling intonation
  • Questions tend to have rising intonation 
  • An invitation for discussion will often have falling and then rising intonation 

There are a lot of different combinations of the four elements of tone (pitch, tempo, volume, and intonation). As such, although we have given some examples, this is a skill step that is worth exploring in greater depth through listening carefully and then identifying the elements of tone and what you learnt as a result of paying attention to them.

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Advice for

Individuals

Why this skill step matters in education

In education, there are many opportunities to hear from speakers such as classroom discussions, assemblies, talks on a researched topic, or student council meetings. In each situation, it is important to understand a speaker’s tone. The tone that someone uses is very telling of the message they are trying to convey beyond the language they are using. In order for us to make informed decisions or agree upon a set of actions, it is important to understand how their tone might have influenced us. For example, we might be less convinced of an idea because someone is speaking with a high pitch which indicates they lack confidence in what they are saying. By being able to effectively understand how tone can influence us as listeners, we can be more critical in our approach to a subject or idea.  

Why this skill step matters in the workplace

When listening to colleagues, clients or customers, care is required to ensure we understand their tone and how it might be influencing us. If a colleague or client is trying to convince us of a new idea, listening to someone who speaks quietly and in a high pitch might indicate that they have not fully thought through their concept. This can help us to make informed decisions that are right for the business.

Equally, it’s important we can recognise how someone’s tone might indicate how they are feeling so we can respond appropriately. For example, if a customer was sharing that they were dissatisfied with a product or service and they were speaking loudly, we might interpret this as aggressive and look to find support from a colleague or manager.

Why this skill step matters in wider life

When speaking with others in our wider lives, it’s important to recognise their use of tone. By correctly understanding the speaker’s tone we can build a picture of how they are feeling and we can find the ways to best support and guide them with our response. Through doing this, we can also build stronger bonds with the people around us.

We might also interact with strangers when travelling around our local area or when attending a public event and understanding a speaker’s tone in these situations is also important. This can help us to stay safe in hostile situations but it can also support us to make new friends and connections with others.  

How to practise this skill step

To best practise this step of Listening, apply what youhave learnt to a real-life situation. Choose one or more of the activities below, remind yourself of the key points and strategies in the step, and have a go!

  • Listen to different audio clips either on the internet, on the television or in a film. If the clips are accompanied by a video, try to avoid watching it during this task. Start by picking out how the speaker or speakers are using or changing their tone. Consider their pitch, tempo, volume and intonation.
  • As above but now try to identify how the speaker or speakers are feeling.
  • As above but now try to identify the purpose of the speaker’s communication. Is it to give instructions? Are they asking questions? Are they trying to have a discussion?

Build this step

Advice for

Educators

Teaching It

To teach this step:

  • Firstly, learners must have a clear understanding of what is meant by tone and the parts that make it up – they should be able to give definitions and examples, and talk about how they vary.
  • Secondly, learners can then focus on what changes in these different elements might suggest to a listener. The teacher might be able to model how this works by repeating a similar statement in different ways and demonstrating how variations in each of the tonal elements sounds like.
  • Once learners have a strong understanding of the different elements, the teacher can play them a series of audio clips (try to avoid visual clues) and ask them to reflect on what they learnt from listening to the tone of the speaker. 

Reinforcing it

This is a step that can be routinely practised in a classroom setting. For example:

  • To reinforce the ideas of tone and the elements that make it up, visual reminders in the classroom can be helpful.
  • When listening to any audio of another speaker, the teacher can pause learners and get them to reflect on what they have interpreted from the tone of the speaker.
  • When the teacher is talking in class, they can pause learners and highlight the different elements of tone in how they spoke and ask the class to interpret what that might mean.

Assessing it 

This step is best assessed through an assessed activity. For example:

  • Testing whether learners remember what the four elements of tone are, how they vary and what the effects of that variation can be on the interpretation of the listener.
  • Playing learners a series of short audio clips and asking them to interpret how the elements of tone have varied in those clips, and what they can infer from that.

Build this step

Advice for

Employers

Build it at work: 

This step will be relevant for people who have to work with customers, clients or other external stakeholders where there is influence involved. 

To build this step in the work environment, managers could:

  • Discuss with an individual why it is important to be aware of a variations in a speaker’s tone. 
  • Explain what is meant by tone and its constituent parts. Managers could achieve this by highlighting elements of someone’s speech and then explaining effect it has on them as a listener.
  • Model variations in their tone and ask the individual to identify the effect this had on them as a listener. 
  • Set an exercise to see a particular variation in tone in action. An example might be to task an individual to listen to a company presentation to and discuss with a colleague how the speaker uses their tone to help convey a particular message.
  • Reflect with the individual about how well they recognise the subtle variations in tone and their effects on them as a listener. 

Practising it:

There are plenty of opportunities for building this skill step in the workplace:

  • Working with colleagues: During conversations with colleagues when they are trying to influence you to do something. 
  • Working with customers or clients: When interacting with stakeholders who want you to influence you to do something, or behave in a particular way. 

Reviewing it:

For those already employed, this step can be assessed through questioning and observation. For instance:

  • Asking questions to check whether an individual remembers what the four elements of tone are, how they vary and the effects of that variation on them as a listener.
  • Observing interactions between an individual and their partner, to identify whether their response reflects the tone used to communicate the information.

Spotting it in recruitment: 

During the recruitment process, this step could be assessed by:

  • Observing an individual during an assessed exercise. This could be in the format of a simulated interaction between an employee and a stakeholder where the individual should identify how the stakeholder may interpret an employee’s tone.
  • Observe an individual as they listen to instructions or respond to questions from a recruiter during an assessment or selection process. In this example, a recruiter might vary their tone for effect and observe for an appropriate response.

Build this step

Advice for

Organisations

We work with a wide range of organisations, who use the Skills Builder approach in lots of different settings – from youth clubs, to STEM organisations, to careers and employability providers.

We have a lot of materials available to support you to use the Skills Builder Universal Framework with the individuals you work with, including:

  • Tools for self-reflection
  • Materials to support you to teach the skills, if appropriate in your setting
  • Reward systems like printable certificates

We also do a lot of work with organisations who join the Skills Builder Partnership to build the Universal Framework into their work and impact measurement systems. You can find out a lot more using the links below.

More resources

Advice for

Parents & Carers

As a parent or carer, you might be thinking about how best to support your children to build their essential skills. The good news is that there is lots that you can do that will have a big impact, including:

  • Talking about how you use these skill steps in your own life
  • Trying to show how to use the skill steps, and explaining why you are doing what you are doing
  • Praising your children when they show they are using the skills well, and help them to see that as a worthwhile achievement

We’ve developed a whole series of tools and resources to help parents to build these skills, including:

  • Skill stories for the youngest children (aged 3+)
  • Short activities that you can complete together
  • Regular challenges that you can complete at home to build the essential skills
  • Reward systems like printable certificates and badges

There is also content for older children and young people, including short activities and reflections that they can complete alone, or with you.

Build this step