When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new. –Dalai Lama
In the year I have spent as PREP Program Manager, I have had the distinct pleasure of getting to listen to youth in our valley, and I have learned a LOT. One of the goals of PREP is to engage youth and adults in conversation around sensitive topics like sexuality. One of the questions that we ask as we work towards this goal is, ‘What makes an “askable” adult?’ What makes a youth trust that they can talk to an adult about sensitive, often awkward subjects? I will attempt to express what I’ve learned through listening with the word TRUST as my guide:
Trust is earned when you engage youth in a caring atmosphere. When YOU APPROACH THEM with questions and a sincere interest in what they have to say, they will talk (eventually on some occasions, more than you had hoped for in others).
Role alone is not enough. Unfortunately being a Pediatrician, nurse, teacher, counselor, principal, coach, parent, youth leader, etc. isn’t enough to gain trust without question. In fact, the sheer intimidation some roles carry can be more of a barrier than an open door. And if you change their perception and actually achieve their trust, (yes, it can be done!), that trust doesn’t automatically transfer to the next person in the same role. For parents, it may be that your child doesn’t want to disappoint you. Turns out, that one of the biggest preventative factors to engaging in risky behaviors; knowing parents would disapprove. Your role may lead youth to assume you will react with retaliation, so they remain silent. Youth think you will assume they are already engaging in a behavior if they bring it up, so they DON’T BRING IT UP.
Underestimating what youth have to offer; especially when based on how they look, dress, talk, is a real turn off and can often times exacerbate the behaviors that turned you off in the first place. As one focus group participant expressed so eloquently, “We are conscious thinking, cognitive beings, we can process information; we learn things every single day as we grow up. And sometimes we have perspectives that are new and fresh and that are maybe things that some adults haven’t thought about, and we can bring that to the table.”
Sharing personal stories with youth shows them that you are willing to relate your values in a real, authentic way. Sharing is not for gossip and should have relevance. For instance, in PREP we train our facilitators not to share personal stories to answer anonymous questions such as, ‘when did you first have sex?’ But adults can share stories about knowing young people who may have decided to engage in sex at perhaps too young of an age and whether or not there were regrets or consequences. You are relating something about your life’s experiences without engaging in gossip or inappropriate messages. Someone may take what is said and actually learn something from it.
Telling youth, “You can talk to me about anything.” is not enough to get them to approach you with sensitive matters or issues they are facing. It’s definitely a good place to start, but don’t stop there. Approach. Engage. Ask. Validate. Don’t shame. Don’t blame. LISTEN.