Activities for active listening

Last week, I wrote about how to listen to youth at times of crisis and after I posted it, I realized I had more to say specifically about the act of listening.  Because one of the things I’ve learned about listening to youth is sometimes the best way to do it is when listening is – or appears to be – the secondary activity.

Let me explain.

Have you ever had the experience of getting a group of youth together to sit around in a circle and inviting them to share only to encounter a long period of awkward silence? In contrast, have you ever had a really deep conversation with a handful of youth when you’re driving somewhere and they are in the backseat?  That’s what I mean.

In my experience, in general youth share more freely and openly when they’re not put on the hot seat to share as we adults are looking at them intently. Instead, the sharing often slips in sideways as adults or mentors are there alongside them, doing something else.

This means that we as youth leaders need to be able to lead discussions while doing other things. We may not be able to have some elegantly prepared questions listed in front of us as we enter into deep territory. It also means that as we prepare activities we may also want to think about any topics we may want to address while we do other things. Or we can be aware that we propose activities not just for the activities themselves, but for the conversations that might arise as a result.

Please note that the point of all of this is not to trick youth into sharing. The point is to make the conversations more comfortable. When we sit in a circle and ask  questions that make it clear it’s Time To Share, it sets up a power dynamic, no matter what our intentions. Doing other activities give youth some elbow room, and allow us to come alongside youth, to accompany them rather than direct them.

With that in mind, here are some activities to do to frame opportunities for deep conversation and discussion. These are good for mentor-youth pairs as well as youth groups, though the larger the group, the harder it may be to direct any sort of conversation.

Cooking and baking: This is an excellent one because it keeps people within a relatively enclosed area, doing relatively easy tasks, that requires some down time as things are cooking.

Sharing food: It doesn’t have to be fancy. Youth can make it as well as set the tables and eat together and clean up together.

Simple crafts: I had a truly wonderful discussion with a group of youth about love and relationships while we were making valentines. The craft needs to be one that doesn’t require a lot of direction so that the focus can be on talking.

Walking or hiking: The group needs to be relatively small for this to work, and you need to stick together.

Sporting events: Either watching or playing, but it probably needs to be informal and low-key. Intensely competitive games probably won’t work. And boy do you not need to be the star.

Service projects: Ones that work best are quiet, and often not glamorous: picking up trash, for example, or painting a room. If there’s a specific issue or concern that you want to help the youth process, it might also be good to find a way to address that through service, such as offering to serve at an LGBT youth center.

Clerical tasks: Stuffing envelopes is excellent for this: it’s mindless, repetitive, and quiet. Ask your parish administrator if there’s something you can do to help.

During transport: As mentioned earlier, and as you undoubtedly know, youth talk in the backseat in a way they may not talk to you face to face. Find a reason to go somewhere – including for any of the items listed above – and know that your main activity may be the conversation in the car.

Of course there are many more. And of course there’s still a place for the formal discussion group. But just bear in mind that there’s more than one way to open a topic for discussion. Maybe all we need to do is create a safe environment and see where things lead.

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