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Being a safe place

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.

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Posted by on October 3, 2011 in Leading Youth

 

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Lively listening: one of my most memorable youth small group experiences

In my second year of youth work in Beijing I began a small group for the older homeschooled girls living in a certain area of the city. These were good, solid girls with personal faith and leadership skills they were already putting to good use. All 5 were oldest children (with the exception of the younger sister of a pair who were both in the group – although the younger sibling was a total type A anyway!) They are wonderful young women and I love each of them dearly, despite the fact that I don’t talk to them often as they are living in different parts of the USA, busy with college.

I tried to make the group something different to a “normal” bible study. Most MKs have a LOT of Christian knowledge. They’ve been hearing it, just about breathing it, for most of their childhoods. I figured that if we did a regular bible study, these girls would stay in their comfort zone – with easy-access answers, safe in the Christian bubble.

Instead, I tried to poke and prod them a little – try to find questions they didn’t have stock answers for.  I tried to challenge them to think laterally/critically about their faith – to examine the things they accepted; to think about why. Sometimes I was successful in asking questions they didn’t have a ready answer to; sometimes I’m not sure they followed the weird angle I was coming from.

The most memorable small group for me – certainly the most lively discussion by far – was the one in which I didn’t reference the Bible. Not even once. And yet, I think it was the most “productive” afternoon I spent with that group of girls.

I’m not entirely sure where we started. I think we were talking about how to love other people well. We listed a bunch of ways to love people, and honed in on listening to them – we all agreed that when we feel listened to we believe the other person really cares about us. Therefore, listening well to the people around us was a way we could minister to them, showing God’s care and love.

So I asked them a question: how do you know someone’s listening to you?

It took a while to get some answers (they seemed to think it was obvious!) but eventually they began to describe concrete ways they measured whether a person was listening to them.

The 1st said: “their face is animated”
The 2nd said: “they ask lots of follow up questions”
The 3rd said “the keep eye contact with me”
The 4th said “they share similar experiences they’ve had”
The 5th said “I can see it in their body language”

I thought to myself “Wow! Five different responses! I couldn’t have planned this better!

The only thing was, they hadn’t seen it yet.

I asked the first girl “are you careful to keep your face animated when you’re listening to them?”
“Of course!” she replied, animatedly.

I asked the second girl “are you careful to ask lots of follow up questions when you’re listening?”
“Of course!” she replied, enthusiastically.

I asked the third girl “are you careful to maintain eye contact when you’re listening to someone?”
“Yes…” she replied with a hint of “what are you getting at” to her voice.

I couldn’t believe I was still getting blank stares. I changed tack.

I asked the first girl “are you careful to ask lots of follow up questions?”
“No,” she answered. She didn’t say “well why would I?” but she might as well have.

I asked the second girl “do you keep your face animated when you’re listening?”
“No,” came the reply.

I looked at them. Then it clicked. They turned to each other and started talking at the same time.

“You mean you don’t…!”
“Why wouldn’t you…?”
“Don’t you think…?”
“But it’s normal to…!”

And they were off and racing! I don’t think I contributed much more from that point on. We must have had a full 20-30 minutes of conversation discovering that the way you show something and the way I perceive it are different – and that when you learn how someone else works, you can express listening (and love) to them in a way that they understand. I might be showing someone love without them realising it – and the people might be showing me love in their own way, it’s just not obvious to me.

That discussion was so gratifying to me as a leader – I don’t remember them ever being that animated ever before or after. I had that wonderful sensation of having unlocked something for them – nothing earth-shattering or revolutionary, but bringing them to that point of catching a new concept for the first time. They would have worked it out sooner or later, but it was wonderful to watch them unpack it excitedly together.

I think that’s one of the most wonderful parts of small groups – giving teens the chance to work out their faith together: to understand new concepts and work out the practical applications. Creating a safe space for those discoveries and the experimentation that follows is a great goal for any small group.

 
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Posted by on May 4, 2011 in Leading Youth

 

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