When I was in my early twenties, I decided to go on a “road trip” to a conference. I was very excited to go until a friend of mine asked if he could come with me. Now, I love this friend, but the thought of six hours alone in the car with anyone terrified me (and it still does!). What were we going to talk about? What if I ran out of pre-made questions after the first 3 minutes? And I could just picture it—driving in awkward silence, trying to force myself to wait long intervals in between sneaking peaks at the dashboard clock, only to be disappointed to discover that although it had felt like an eternity, it had only been five minutes!
OK, so maybe I’m being a little dramatic—but not by much. This really is a fear of mine (by the way, the car ride was excellent, and ended up cementing our friendship for years to come!). And now, as I’m sure is true of most of you, I spend a lot of time talking with teenagers. And, if you haven’t noticed, sometimes that is challenging!
I came across this article on a blog I read pretty regularly by Doug Fields about talking to teens, and it really got me thinking. After almost two decades of talking to teens from a pastoral context, have I learned anything? So here’s my attempt at suggesting a few pieces of advice. And I would also encourage you to check out the article “5 Tips to Get Your Teens Talking.”
In that article, the author Jonathan McKee says this,
Remember, our teenagers really want to be heard. Sadly, they often are ignored by adults. So sometimes they just need to test the waters and see that we’re actually willing to listen … Just make an effort, demonstrating that you care and actually want to listen… the rest will fall into place.
I think this is a perfect place to start. Teenagers want to be heard. Even though it may seem like they don’t really want to talk, the truth is they do. In fact they need to talk. The power of a safe, loving adult listening to them cannot be overstated.
So I guess I’d break my “strategy” into three principles:
Ask a Lot of Questions
Seriously. A lot. I spent an hour talking to a teen the other day. As the conversation got started I was nervous. I felt like I had gotten through my “pre-planned” questions too quickly, and we had tons of “hangout” time left. But I just kept showing interest. Kept asking questions. And what I have found to be true, is that as you ask questions, and keep digging, you will eventually find gold. Most often people don’t just come right out with the main issue of their heart. It takes time to warm up. Many times I feel like in the final moments of a talk, the teenager I’m talking to will really get down to business, and share something deep. Those are the moments you are looking for! And questions just get the process flowing.
I know we’ve all made fun of this before, but it really is important. We need to show that we are listening well. I know at times it can be hard as a 35 year old to be truly interested in the biggest crises in a 13 year old’s life, but honestly it is worth it. Invest. Listen. Ask follow up questions. Keep eye contact. Reflect to show you are not just listening, but you are hearing them. “I get you! I understand how and why you would feel that way!” Being understood helps people feel that they are no longer alone and that someone is “in their corner.”
This is by far the hardest part, but I think it really is crucial. I think you make a teenager feel so special when next time you see them you ask, “so how did that relationship turn out?” Or, “did you have that talk with your parents yet, how did it go?” I mean, didn’t Jesus instead of just saying he loved us, show us his love? I think this kind of paying special attention to our teens shows volumes more love than any words we can tell them. It reminds me of Michael in The Office, and how he kept that Rolladex of all his clients with little details about their interests. Sometimes I watch that episode and it makes me think of my job! I really do want to be as attentive and loving as possible.
And one more thing—go easy on yourself. You and I both know that we will never do all of the above with every teen. Showing the effort is the biggest part. And just being available and listening, and showing you care, is often enough to get it rolling. I hope this is helpful. Go read Jonathan’s post too. And comment below on any ideas you’ve discovered that work!