The key to communication when volunteering

Matt was an ICS International Team Leader in
Kayunga District, Uganda.

After returning from my ICS placement, working on Sexual, Reproductive Health and Rights in and outside of schools, many of my friends and family have been asking ‘what did you learn?’. The simple answer is ‘lots’, but I think the main thing is the importance of communication.

We heard about communication a lot during our pre-placement training, in-country training and top-up training and it was something that my counterpart Dan and I emphasised on a daily basis to each-other and our team. We used to joke that there were only ever two problems: health problems and problems with communication (almost every challenge we faced had something to do with communication somewhere along the line!).

Communication ties in closely with the ICS dimensions (working with others and being sensitive to the needs of others would be impossible without good communication) and is crucial if we want to work together as young people to achieve change in our world.

Volunteers in a team meeting to plan for their Youth Resource Corner at a local health centre.

We are lucky to have so many ways of communicating, but it’s not always easy to communicate effectively, especially in sometimes challenging environments.

There were a few things that helped me out a lot whilst on my placement and I hope will be useful to others, either on placement with ICS or in other projects and campaigns:

Make sure common language is shared language

  • I was fortunate that so many of our team, my counterpart and many people in the community spoke fantastic English. But English is a big language and there’s a lot of space for words to mean different things to different people. We had to take time and ask a lot of questions to make sure that our common language was a shared language. For example, I copied my counterpart and starting saying ‘bathing’ instead of ‘washing’ because ‘washing’ mainly meant washing clothes/laundry!

Learn the local language

  • Although I couldn’t speak much of the local language (Luganda), Dan kept helping me learn words and phrases throughout our placement. Just a few words of greeting or appreciation can communicate so much more, like your interest in a person and their language and a willingness to make an effort. Those are qualities that can really help to build a relationship and move you one step closer to achieving your aims.

Create a shared calender

  • Sometimes placement was busy and it was difficult to get a clear picture of what our priorities would be each week or day. We realised that we needed a way to make things visual as it was getting hard to always talk things through (we would lose track!) So we designed a simple wall chart for us and each of the host homes in our team so that everyone would know when things were happening. It’s so easy to assume that someone is aware the big event is ‘the day after tomorrow’ but that can be confusing and unreliable. We made it visual and put it somewhere everyone could see, comment, contribute and even decorate! It really helped everyone to focus on particular activities and get a clear picture of what was happening and what priorities were.

Text messages aren’t always taken the way they are intended

  • The way we write things down really matters and unfortunately it can sometimes be problematic. Without a smile to accompany words they can come across as dry or blunt and maybe even cause offence. We had lots of WhatsApp groups for various things and whilst they were really useful, especially for making sure that everyone had access to information, there were a few times where messages were taken the wrong way, resulting in some issues. I tried to get around this by writing long messages that I thought were very clear (with lots of detail!) but the reality is that not everyone would read them! We had to really think what the best way of communicating a particular message was – a phone call or quick meeting, a short (!) WhatsApp or even a group phone call were just a few options we used and we tried to not rely on only one method.

Check-in with people

  • I don’t think our communication was ever completely perfect. It’s something to keep working on and constantly be aware of. I learned the hard way that it’s much better to check-in with a person to make sure they understand things than to stay silent and assume they are happy. Slipping into a routine is really positive, but problematic if you get complacent.

Make sure every team member is heard

  • There were a few times during our placement when communication wasn’t quite perfect. We would solve these issues together by sitting down and finding time and space to talk about what went wrong, working together to find solutions, ensuring all team members had a voice.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion

  • One of our team taught me a vital thing about communication when she said: ‘Just because I don’t agree with someone, doesn’t mean I don’t understand’. It really made me realise that good communication is not about what we do ourselves, but what we do together. Even after communicating what we want to say, we have to consider whether someone understands or agrees, and then do our part to respect and understand their response.

Matt and his counterpart Dan after World AIDS Day celebrations

As Peak Youth, we are a passionate and switched on generation with a huge opportunity to change our world, the importance of communication is crucial to this.


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The key to communication when volunteering

by wearerestless Reading time: 4 min