What makes a good conversation with young people?

In the past I have given many hints and tips on how to have a good conversation with young people, I have also reflected sociologically and theologically about conversations, and suggested ways of valuing them (Ie ensure they feature in review sheets) but I wonder;

‘What makes a good conversation?’

Think about for a moment, whether you were in a pub, a coffee shop, in your home, out walking the dog even, walking in the countryside or at a beach.. what was it that made the conversation you had with someone.. a good one?

A sense of sharing?

Time flying, yet every moment being precious?

Personal disclosure?

Humour?

Good body language and eye contact?

Shared understanding?

Trust?

No fixed ending?

Equal power dynamics? Or at least awareness of these but respecting each other through it with boundaries..?

What might you add?

And whether we’re 14 or 41, 30 or 60, we sort of know intuitively when we’ve had a good conversation with someone, we felt it, we learned something, we gave something away, maybe there was a spark of life, of hope and of support or care. But we just know.

So, thinking about the dynamics of the youth group setting, the club, the school group or street..

How can spaces, become places of good conversation?

The responsibility is on us, the practitioner, the volunteer to make it so.

Though we might meet a friend in a coffee shop – the conversation with a young person might be less deliberate.. only that they might be looking for the moment

Though we might pass a conversation off as insignificant (we have loads in every session..) young people might have treasured them, or felt an emptiness without one.

The culture and setting is important for conversations. I remember that the best place for conversations was on the door of the open music night, where the young people were smoking. Inside was too loud and dark.. yet, outside was good for conversation because it was an extension of the informal space inside. How might conversation be had in the space of your setting.. I’ve seen homework clubs recently where the leaders have some great conversations with the young people, whilst they’re doing their homework. But also seen very stilted conversations with young people about a theme not of their choosing. When I say I’ve seen, it’s because I led them. When urgency to educate overrides participatory culture that is for young people.

Trust. Agreed, not only being trusted people, but as Jeffs and Smith also say, trusting in conversations themselves. Investing emotionally, in the connections, relying on the conversations for learning, for themes if any to emerge, to let tangents happen, to trust in ourselves as practitioners and volunteers to hold on in conversations, to listen and ask, not try and direct or shape..

Then again, whilst we might want to fixate on the good conversations, we might do well to treasure all the conversations and interactions we have whether it’s banter or chat, or something deeper, all are important. When doing detached work I used to have different categories of the interaction, from ‘acknowledgement'(a quick hi and bye) , a social conversation (about the local context, evenings activities) , a detailed conversation (about a subject in depth) or even a personal one (where disclosure occurred or a personal opinion shared) .. these helped us to value the nature of conversations and recognise that all had value and occurred at different points of a detached evening.. the same group might have a social chat early on or an acknowledgement and later it’s more of a detailed one, once they have found a space to settle in.

I guess if we value conversations, we might do well to recognise their variety, the changes, and their nature. But what makes them good?

And whilst we might have an idea.. sometimes the most naturally good conversations are the ones that just well, happen. We just have to create the right kind of space where young people feel at home and safe.

Author: James

Currently I work part time for both Frontier Youth Trust (www.fyt.org.uk) and Communities Together Durham (www.communitiestogetherdurham.org) , though this blog is my own personal views. I am also self employed and do various aspects of youthwork consultancy, including training, writing, lecturing, seminars and written pieces, including organisational consultancy, community profiling and detached/youthwork training. Please do get in touch if I can be of help to you in your church, project or organisation to develop your youth and community work. I have contributed to 'Here be Dragons (2013), and two recent articles in the youth and theology journal and 'ANVIL' the CMS online journal. My recent employment includes, working for FYT as a youthwork development adviser, being the centre director at Durham YFC, and before this I was known as 'Mr Sidewalk' as I was the project coordinator for the Sidewalk Project in Perth, where I facilitated the delivery of 5 years of detached youthwork on the streets, schools and communities to engage with young people , and support through alcohol misuse issues. In 2017 I completed an MA in Theology & Ministry at St John's College, Durham, and in 2008 graduated from ICC (now NTC Glasgow) with an honours degree in youth work with Applied theology.

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