This post from two weeks ago included some thoughts on asking good questions and listening well, thoughts that were continued in the comments section. Asking good questions and listening well are two really important skills to develop for all who work with youth – whether you’re a youth pastor, volunteer leader, mentor, bible study leader, teacher, or parent.
But no matter how good we become at asking good questions and listening well, kids won’t talk to us about anything meaningful unless they trust us. Several years ago I encountered a situation with a youth I met with that I felt was over my head – too messy for me to handle alone. One of the first people I went to for counsel was my father. I am incredibly blessed to have parents who are a great sounding board for my decision making, and they have helped me process situations throughout my entire ministry career.
During that conversation, my Dad said something that has stuck with me ever since, and helped shaped one of my biggest priorities as a youth worker. He said that he believed, as a parent, that what this girl needed most from me was to be someone she could trust.
I believe that one of the most important roles I have is to be a safe place for students. I want to show trustworthiness – that I am interested in my kids, accept them, do not judge them, and will not gossip about them. My hope is that when something goes wrong in their life, they will feel safe to turn to me to talk about it. One of the most dangerous situations our youth get in is when they feel isolated – that there is no one they can talk to.
One of the biggest compliments I got as a youth leader was when a kid I was mentoring referred a friend to me. She told her friend she didn’t know how to help her, but that she should talk to me. That told me I was hitting the mark – I was seen as safe.
Part of being safe is not preaching at kids. This is part of listening well, really. Sometimes what a kid needs is not the answer, but someone to listen to and empathise with how they are feeling. It’s also better to help them think through a situation and come up with a way forward on their own than to give them the “right answer”. Teaching them to think through a situation to a wise conclusion is far more valuable than telling them what to do.
Being a safe place does not mean watering down truth. What it means is developing a relationship to the point that such counsel will be accepted and listened to. Building safe and trusting relationships with youth is like preparing the soil of their hearts to be receptive to the seeds that are sown in their lives. Unless there are people they trust, no truth told to them will take root and grow.