Conversations with middle schoolers can be challenging. But also amazing. For some additional thoughts and ideas on this, read 4 Ways to Start Conversations with Middle Schoolers, The Joy and Ease of Meeting Middle Schoolers, and Contact Work Dos and Don’ts.
Then watch this 10-minute TED talk by Celeste Headlee, a well known award-winning radio host and interviewer. Her ten points are listed below in bold, followed by some thoughts and ideas on what they mean in a WyldLife-specific context.
1. Don’t multi-task. This means more than just eliminating other tasks; it also means eliminating other thoughts. People who work in youth ministry care deeply about people – so they are prone to think ahead to the next thing they’re going to say or the next question they’re going to ask. Don’t. Just focus. Just listen. Just be there. Totally. You’ll still have plenty of time to think of what to say or ask next.
2. Don’t pontificate. Or in our case, “don’t preach.” Don’t talk and act like you’re the expert in everything – life, God, middle school, friends, parents, blahblahblah, even if you likely do know more about these things than your 12, 13, and 14-year old friends. Instead, approach conversations with your MS friends with an expectant and listening attitude. Remember that everyone is an expert in something – themselves, a hobby, their school, their lunches, their classes, their favorite video game, their favorite book, their favorite movie, whatever. Your MS friends aren’t often approached or treated as an expert. If you do this, you’re a rockstar. Let them talk about the things they care about and know about; you be a listener and a learner.
3. Use open-ended questions. Who, what, where, when, why questions or “Tell me about” statements are much better ways to create conversation. What was that like? is a much better question than Was that awesome? or Was that a bummer?, and How did that feel? is a much better question than Did that make you mad? or Were you afraid? Give them a chance to articulate on their own the events, the responses, the emotions, and the responses.
4. Go with the flow. Follow the conversation where it goes (and with MSers, it could go anywhere). Don’t interrupt the flow with a question you’ve already decided to ask. See #1 above. Sometimes with Middle Schoolers, we need to help discover and guide the flow since sustained conversation is new for many of them. But that’s different than monopolizing and controlling the flow.
5. If you don’t know, say that you don’t know. It’s true that you’ve lived a lot more life than most MSers – but that doesn’t mean that you know everything or have all the answers to life or to their particular experiences, worries, and questions. Be attentive, be thoughtful, be careful, and be honest about your own realm of knowledge and wisdom.
6. Don’t equate your experience with theirs. This is not about you! One of the best things you will do as a WyldLife leader is remember what it was like to be in MS yourself – but that doesn’t mean you should talk about your own MS experience or make the conversation about you. Let them talk about and process their own experiences, thoughts, emotions, and questions. And don’t say, “Yeah – I know just what you mean and how you’re feeling. When I was in middle school, blah blah blah blah blabbidy blah.” Bad form. Don’t do it. If you still need to talk and work through your own middle school experiences (whether good or traumatic), do it with someone else.
7. Don’t repeat yourself. Don’t keep trying to make the same point by rephrasing it in slightly different ways. Our MS friends get plenty of this from parents, teachers, and coaches. If you need to repeat something for their own safety or the safety of others, that’s obviously an exception. On the other hand, varied repetition can be an excellent strategy in club talks when it involves using more than one example or visual illustration to make a point – you want to make sure every kid has a chance to connect and understand. But in normal conversation, don’t be a broken record. No one likes a broken record. (And middle schoolers probably don’t even know what a broken record is.)
8. Stay out of the weeds. Don’t get caught up in unnecessary and irrelevant details – unless that’s exactly what they need you to do. On occasion, our MS friends might get stuck on something that seems irrelevant and insignificant to us. We might be tempted to push the conversation forward or to redirect them. But this is not primarily your conversation: it’s theirs. You are there to listen and to be fully attentive. If they need to spend time on something that seems small to you but obviously matters to them, then that’s what you should do. But if they’re getting distracted and dismayed or distraught over something that is best left behind (at least for the time being), help move the conversation forward, gently.
9. LISTEN. We prefer talking because then we’re in control. And many WyldLife leaders are naturally conversational, communicative, outgoing, and talkative. Plus, we can get easily distracted. We can listen faster than people can talk. Since MSers are still learning how to carry conversation, it can be very easy for us to be distracted by other things (especially our own thoughts) while they are talking. Or we can get ever so slightly irritated or annoyed if our MS friends are having a hard time organizing and articulating their thoughts. BUT DON’T DO THAT. It takes EFFORT and ENERGY to pay attention to someone talking – especially if they are talking in circles, or struggling to find the right words, or getting distracted by other people or sounds. But: IF YOU CAN’T LISTEN WITH YOUR FULL ATTENTION, you cannot do ministry. Period. Don’t listen with the intent to respond or fix or clarify or instruct. Listen to listen.
10. Be brief. MSers especially aren’t looking for long, wordy, circular, extensive, and detailed responses. (Actually, almost no one is.) After you’ve listened and when it’s time to respond, be brief. Bounce the conversation back to them again. So they can talk. So they can be the expert. So they can be listened to. So you can listen.
Most important of all: take them seriously. Never laugh at what they say (unless it’s intended to be funny). Lean in as though their words are the most important thing to you in that moment – which they should be. And always be prepared to be amazed by a middle schooler – who they are, what they think, what they know – and you will never be disappointed. Never. It’s a promise.