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?
- 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..?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.