“My friend told me I should talk to you. I’m really struggling and I didn’t know who else to talk to…”
Frequently, students come to my room, starting conversations like this. Some of them I have in class. Some I’ve never met. I work with them after school or during their lunch, listening to their stressors and guiding them to positive action steps.
Mostly, their issues are typical of adolescence — relationship struggles, the stress of what to do after high school, friendship drama. Sometimes, though, our conversations turn to getting support via counselors and medical professionals. Students describe overwhelming anxiety, lingering depression, dark thoughts.
I’m fortunate that, as our school’s Peer Listener teacher, I’m trained to help these students get support. But, I also realize that it’s because of my training that so many students come to my room to talk. I’ve learned, through being educated and through trial-and-error, how to listen so that students talk authentically.
Many students don’t feel like they have an adult who will listen, truly, to their issues. As we see reports of increasing stress loads and mental illness and decreasing coping strategies among young adults, we have to confront a reality: Our students are struggling more than ever, but they often don’t feel like adults really care.
We can be the critical adult who helps them get the support and skills they need. But we have to learn how to listen better. Here are the six things we do wrong — and suggestions on how to listen and lead better.
1. We give too much advice
This is the hardest habit to cut, but the most necessary. Students are inundated with people telling them what to do. Students tell me they don’t want to talk to adults about things like post-secondary fears because before they finish a sentence, they are hit with a barrage of advice. Have you talked to…? You need to… You should try…
Advice shuts down a person’s processing time. It assumes that we know their life better than they do. And, as young adults seek autonomy by biology and necessity, we destroy dialogue.
Try this instead: Use open-ended questions.
One of my students, who frequently came for help through high school (and college), once remarked, “You know what…I just realized that you barely say anything when I talk to you…You just ask me questions until I figure it out.” She became aware of my greatest strategy: Socratic method.
Make it a habit to use questions starting with “What” or “How”
Rather than, “Have you talked to your teacher about your grade?” try “What have you already tried? What’s working and what isn’t?”
Most importantly, root every question in true curiosity. Listen to learn, not to lecture.
2. We don’t affirm
Young adults — and all humans — crave affirmation: Knowing that we are okay, that we aren’t ruined, that we have strengths, that there is good in the world. Too often our efforts to affirm turn into advice. You know, when I was your age…
In doing so, we force them into our past, which isn’t what they need. We need permission to enter their present and help them find competence in their future.
Try this instead: Relate, affirm, return
A five second moment of “I can relate” can help as long as (a) it’s brief, (b) we let them know their lives are still unique, and (c) we bring it back to their world.
Ex: “The pressures you deal with in trying to maintain friendships are harder than I ever experienced in high school. But, I remember feeling isolated when it seemed I was excluded from things. (Relate) That’s hard. (Affirm) What do you do in those situations? (Return)“
3. We don’t listen
I hear a lot about how disconnected teenagers are from face-to-face interaction. But, when’s the last time you checked your nonverbals when talking to a student? How often do we feign attention while finishing emails, picking up around our classrooms, or zoning out about the next thing on our calendar. Adolescents are not inept at sensing an adult is checked out. Maybe they are trying to talk to us but we aren’t actually listening.
Try this instead: Finite Frame
Finite framing is a mental reminder that moments are unique and moments will come to an end. We will never again get this conversation, in this way, on this day, with this student. So don’t take it for granted. When you find yourself mentally drifting, think, “If this were the last conversation I had with this student, would I be okay with how I listened?”
Bare minimum, put down your phone, detach from your computer, leave your hands, body, and listening open to be fully present with a young adult who needs help.
4. We focus on the plot rather than the emotion
Let’s say a teenager starts opening up about how a lot of her peers are vaping or trying illicit drugs. At school. At parties. Our mind jumps to detective mode: Who all is doing it? How are they getting it? Have you tried it!? Then, we jump to protective advice-giver: You’ll ruin your future if you…
And yet again, we’ve left the teenager at the train station while we go chugging along the reactionary track.
Try this instead: Use a Feelings Focused Response
A feelings-focused response (FFR) is when we label a specific emotion someone is feeling. It might start with a summary first and then sound like:
“So a lot of your peers are making decisions that go against your values. That’s overwhelming.”
“You feel disappointed.”
Sounds like a terse response, but here’s why these work:
- We help students put a label to the confusing emotions they’re feeling, which models self-awareness;
- Human emotions are universal. When we identify the emotion, we show instant empathy. When I use a FFR with students, I see an instant nonverbal (and sometimes verbal) shift of “Yes! You get it!“
- If we get the emotion wrong, we give the young adult a chance to correct us, again helping them label their emotion and strengthen self-awareness.
Ultimately, we want teenagers to make good decisions, which requires self-regulation. We have to have self-awareness before we can self-regulate. A FFR is a power move to help them get there.
5. We don’t invite them
When’s the last time you overtly let a teenager know they could talk to you? As in, you actually said, “I want you to know that if you want to talk, I’m here to listen.” We can’t assume that, just because we are in a position to care as an educator, that our students feel like we are there for them. Sometimes it’s best to just say it.
Try this instead: Use an I-Statement
An oldy but a goody: the classic, “I feel ____ when ____. I need ___.” This is my go-to move for letting young adults know that I’m here to support them. But, I usually mix up the order. For example,
“I noticed in the hallway that you were crying. I feel compassion that you’re going through something difficult right now, so I want you to know that I’m here for you if you want to talk.”
It’s worth noting that our invitations to talk are invites, not mandates. Rarely will a teenager want to talk in that moment — especially if they are flooded with emotion. But I’ve found that almost always, a young adult will take up the offer later, allowing us to process from a more reflective, rational place.
6. We patronize
In our attempts to help teens see that it will be okay, we end up patronizing them in one of two ways:
- We try to cliche the stress away. For example,
- “There are other fish in the sea”
- “Everything happens for a reason”
- “Remember that the grass is greener on the other side”
2. We downplay their stressor
- “I think you might be over-reacting”
- “This seems stressful, but just wait until you are an adult with real stressors”
Always remember that stress is subjective; even though my adult stressors seem heavier than the stressors of adolescence, I can’t expect a teenager to feel and understand that. And, some teens are dealing with situations far more traumatic and challenging than I’ve ever faced in my life.
It doesn’t matter how I feel about their stress. It only matters how they feel about their stress.
Try this instead: Empathize
One step in empathy is linking to a time when we’ve felt a similar emotion. Before hopping on the high horse of adult resilience, ground yourself by remembering what you would have felt like at that age. Even if you haven’t experienced the same thing (i.e. social media didn’t exist when I was a teen), relate to the emotion (social isolation hurts).
This all comes with a disclaimer: It’s okay to not feel comfortable being a go-to adult for a teenager. You might already feel overwhelmed with other obligations or untrained with what to do if someone discloses trauma. (Sidenote: I still recommend using an I-Statement but ending with “I’d like you to connect with [counselor or trained support]”)
But, if you’re like me, you are in the business of helping young adults live better lives, which goes beyond the content we teach. Before we can lead them, we have to listen to them.