10 tips on starting and developing conversations with young people in the youth club

In my recent piece I wrote about how good conversations with young people turn an activity venue into a space of youthwork. Maybe this is a stark claim to a degree, and usually one of the more difficult aspects of working with young people, and frequently asked questions to me is ‘How to developing the conversations?’ , and often that issue resides in us, ie it is our fault young people dont talk to us. Especially if we fear young people or believe the negativity around them.

Whenever I do detached youthwork training for groups and organisations, ‘starting conversations’ in the cold contact moment on the streets is something that we spend ages on. If we’re just setting up activities for young people to do, whilst we stay to one side, or in the kitchen cooking for them, then its no wonder young people leave. On one hand conversations on the streets could be seen as one of the more scary aspects of that type of youthwork, on the other it makes it easy. Why? because Good Conversations happen in an environment where young people feel at home. It is a space that they trust, and we are people they can trust. Young people choose the streets, therefore they’re more likely to feel at home, the youth club or group.. thats a different matter … 

So – in the youth club environment – How do you start conversations with young people?

  1. Good conversations happen when young people feel at home, this includes safety, but it also includes participation, can they treat the place like home, can they make themselves a drink of coffee? Do they trust leaders who stick around (for longer than 6 months)  The environment is key. Giving conversation space is important. How many times do young people ‘just want a space to chat’ whilst we want to make it a space of activity programme and distractions?  What if we heeded this request… what are young people saying..? Image result for conversation
  2. Rely on the context. Starting a conversation with whats in the room and what a young person has brought to the room is a good place. So, What is already happening, what are the young people talking about? Whats the local news, gossip, whats the craze? But also – what might be different about the young person, have they changed their hair? try and notice. The context in the moment is a good key starting point.
  3. Get them involved in a task (not just an activity) and spend time doing that with them, helping set up, deciding on the food, setting out the games, in a club environment the resources themselves can be the setting for the conversation, it helps as it does make it too intrusive or personal.
  4. Opinion Questions;  Try and get an opinion on something – recently this has been easy ‘who do you think will win the world cup’ is an opinion creating question, generating answers and also detailed analysis or a ‘dont care’ – but ‘who do you think’ or ‘what do you think’ type questions are great at getting a response, and giving young people space to share their thoughts and ideas about whatever topic – whether its a local community issue, about an ethical issue, about faith, about future, about something topical. Finding out their opinion and listening to it and using it to reflect on is crucial. Image result for conversation
  5. Dream questions. These are the ‘If you could……..’ type questions. so ‘If you could run the country – what flavour ice cream would be banned’  or ‘if you could have a special power what would you do with it’ or ‘if you could only have cheese or chocolate in the future, which would you keep?’  yes some more open than others, but you see what i mean – questions that pose a possible scenario, or captivate a dream, such as rule making, money spending, world changing – are all positive ways of developing conversations. And hearing about young peoples ideas through these dreams.
  6. Resources can help. The FYT starter cards with pictures and quotations on them might help – used in a way that create conversation and develop thinking. Pip Wilsons blob trees  also work well.
  7. On the Nuture Development site, they have uploaded 25 questions that could be used in a community setting to help develop conversations, these include:

What do you do to have fun?

What would you like to teach others?

if you could start a business what would it be?

Some of these might be more appropriate than others in settings with young people, but I would recommend you have a look at the whole list at this link The good life conversation , there are some good ones like ‘ if you and three friends could do something to improve the lives of others in this area, what would it be’ – and from these types of opinion/dream scenarios the group could develop and make plans.

8. The activities help, of course they do, board games, table tennis and craft are what solid youth clubs have orientated around for decades, all with the triple aims of helping develop competance and achievement, develop skills and social development and also to be a space of conversation in the process.

9. Follow dont lead. Let the tangent happen if thats where the young person has taken it, they might have taken it to that tangent for a reason. Follow it through. If its heading personal and personal for them then thats ok, its being directed by them. If its avoiding issues, then again thats where young people want to go with it. Young people in other settings get used to directed conversations, this may be a space where they can develop their own with adults and be more in control. Let it happen, and then see where it takes. Prepare to improvise, and prepare to listen and hold back. Image result for conversation

10. Phrases like ‘tell me more’ , or ‘describe what that was like’ or ‘you must have been ______ (excited/scared/worried) when that happened’ and other similar ones can be helpful as they take us out of questions, and into listening and trying to give more opportunity for the young person to use the space to talk about something and recognise their feelings in it.

 

So, there we go, much of this stuff is interchangeable from the streets to the clubs, with resources easier in a club setting. Id say that there are a number of things that we may be should try and avoid like, talking about school (if its out of context) , or even talking about ourselves ‘when i was 15 this kind of technology didnt exist’ type of thing as usually young people dont want to talk about school (unless they mention it) or are that bothered about us as adults at all. It takes a bit of guts to really do this conversation thing, because sometimes natural instincts get in the way like ‘how was school today?’ or interrupting or trying to control the conversation, yes maybe avoid subjects unsuitable, but on other occasions following and not leading will help no end.

So, 10 tips to help conversations in youthwork practice- anyone else out there want to add their own for others to share and develop practice? – use the comments below… thank you

 

Other Resources to help:

TED talks on conversation: https://www.ted.com/playlists/211/the_art_of_meaningful_conversa

Valuing conversation in Youthwork; http://www.infed.org

Developing Cold Contact conversations is in two chapters of ‘Here be Dragons’ – Link above.

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Harnessing the power of young peoples ideas; the future of youth ministry? 

What if the role of the youth worker was to harness the power of the young persons ideas?

Whenever there’s discussions about young adults conceptually we might put them in sociological context, as teenagers or adolescents, in a victim or voiceless context such as ‘youth crime’ and innocent/precious context ‘young love’ . Two others are young people as deficit, somehow distinct from society (as determined by adults) or gifted and contributors in social change (abcd, see nurture development site in the menu). Often youth workers might say we’re working to address needs, create safe spaces or  develop their interests.

But what about being catchers, harnessers, and facilitators of young peoples ideas?

As Friere said “There is no change without dream, as there is no dream without hope”  this isn’t about dreams, though dreams & ideas are similar.

As Ted Robinson said in a TED talk on education, from an early age children have divergent thinking that due to more controlling environments in school and other structures like church (sunday school classes) their divergent thinking contracts and becomes convergent. Converging on expectations and the boundaries in formal education settings.

What if the role of the children’s and youth worker is to provide spaces and opportunities for young peoples ideas and the environment to follow them through? To try not to waste them.

Ideas that might be about;

The structure of groups,

Leaders roles,

Content of teaching

Responses to their problems (eg bullying in school )

Responses to faith community issues

Responses to local community issues (food poverty, obesity, limited exercise opportunities, literacy concerns, social inequality)

Residential planning or special events..

The list could go on…

I often hear youth leaders say, ‘we ask young people and they don’t know what they want.’ Then it’s a question of how young people are asked, what the process is to gather ideas, ‘brainstorms’ aren’t always best. Neither are consultations when the plan is already set.

A youth worker friend of mine said that they once took 3 months talking with a group of young people to help them plan their programme. They loved it, engaged with it, led and shaped it. The church hated it. When the worker moved on , new leaders used predetermined programmes. The young people left soon after. A healthy space where ideas were realised was created. When it was shut down. Young people voted with their feet.

What if working with young people was about seeing then as persons with ideas. Ideas that might change their local world. Ideas that it is our role to uncover and help them make them happen.

I was inspired by the entrepreneurial spirit of young people as presented by Kenda Creasy Dean (see previous blog), where young people developed food kitchens and resources. But young people can often find a way to be entertained with just a football and a kerb. They have ideas. And if they don’t then it’s because we’re not trusted to be in receipt of their ideas, yet.

We might hear ideas in conversations, so we need to have conversations with young people and listen.

What this might mean is that young people and children become creators of their own provision. The skills of the voluntary or pro youth worker are then in negotiation and creating mechanisms for accepting or reluctantly blocking the offers of the ideas. In short to be attuned to the skills of improvising in the moment and having access to resources to be part of the acceptance.

If the question is what might the faith based youth worker do that no other professional might, yes support or education or faith imparting might be in there, but a person that seeks out, accepts and realises young children and young peoples ideas might make the role unique.

In a room of 3 young people how many ideas might there be that they have? 30, 300? How many times have these same young people attended the group or club or event and all those ideas for local or group transformation have laid dormant? What a waste.

Oh and if persons are made in God’s image, then so are imaginations, dreams and ideas. It’s our responsibility as youthworkers to create the environment to receive them, to work with young people & children to realise them.

You might never need a ready made programme again.