A young person I work with recently pointed at my shoes and exclaimed,...
Relationships are the bread and butter of youth work. They are the key ingredient on which the rest of our youth work activities are built. Relationships are central to all our lives; through relationships we learn the social skills that help us navigate the world around us. In youth work, we turn this relationship-building into a professional skill. Young people who have positive and trusted relationships with significant adults have been shown to do better in school, have better mental health and be less involved with risk-taking behaviours.
We aim to build good-quality relationships with young people to develop trust, encourage young people to try new experiences, challenge their perceptions and enlarge their learning about the world. Through these relationships, we enable young people to both look inwards at their developing identities and the roles they play, and to look outwards to develop their involvement in their communities and encourage them to take action in the world.
Developing relationships isn’t always easy or straightforward. In fact, developing relationships with young people, however rewarding, can be challenging. We need to consider that some young people will not be interested in us at all and may appear disengaged and confrontational. We offer our activities and relationships for young people to participate in voluntarily. Young people join us for many reasons and initially it won’t be because they’re seeking a relationship with an adult. Rather a relationship is an intentional by-product that over time will be valued. We also need to recognise that young people’s previous experience may inhibit their ability to build relationships and so we may need to tread carefully.
Positive relationships are not something that should be left to chance. It’s important to consider the ways in which we can develop them. To examine the different phases of relationships, we break them down into three stages: contact, progress and risk.
First impressions count. Introducing yourself and your project, and building rapport are really important. The welcome we give young people can set the tone for all future interactions. Our life experiences will have informed the way we build relationships and through an unconscious process of refinement we may have a pattern for introducing ourselves in everyday life. However, if we want to build purposeful relationships, it’s worth examining how we make and build on those first connections.
During your first few meetings with a young person, it’s worth thinking about your face, space and grace. A young person will read your face and body language well before anything comes out of your mouth. Think about positive eye contact as well as open and accepting body language. Be prepared to welcome. What does it say to a young person if you’re still setting up when they arrive?
Another aspect to consider is the space that you’re inviting young people into. Is it a sacred space, a rented space, a multi-use space or even someone’s home? Where do you position yourself? The spaces that we use for youth work vary widely, so take a moment to imagine how a young person feels entering your space for the first time and how they interact with the youth workers there. What would an intentional, relationship-building approach look like?
Finally, it is important to understand that how a young person presents themselves when you first meet them is just that, a presentation. They may be nervous, bored, excited, worried or something else. All these emotions will change how they present themselves. Psychologists tell us that it can take only seven seconds to form an impression of someone. We know that young people are in a crucial time of developing an understanding of their identity and role in the world. The young people we work with will be more developed people next year. We should hold the first impression lightly and with the grace to know that it may not be the same person in six months from now.
These initial moments of contact are important, but we also want to move things forward. While we don’t force young people into building relationships, we do want to seek a stronger relationship through conversation and activity.
Building on those initial sparks of relationship requires effort, often it is conversation that fans those sparks into flames. Conversations are the place where we get to know more about young people and they get to know more about us. We might move on from brief one-way chats to in-depth personal discussions that touch on all sorts of topics.
The space, setup and atmosphere of our youth work will inform and often dictate the types of conversations that can be had. A noisy, exciting and busy space will be great for fun, bantering conversations that work well for groups. Conversely, personal and more intimate conversations will happen in a space which is quieter, with fewer distractions. How often do we try to initiate a conversation that might be inappropriate for the space? Or try to move from an ice breaker to deeper discussion without changing the feel of the space? When working with a group try lighting a few candles and see if the conversation changes. It is important to note that both the banter and the in-depth discussions are important for pursuing relationships. Banter and chatting provides the fuel that keeps relationships going, while the in-depth conversations might be the stops along the journey.
In order to pursue more conversations, we must be armed with a range of questions that inspire and provoke. Questions or provoking statements can begin conversations, and then listening, further questions, tangents, personal experience, stories, humour and even silence move conversations on. Questions invite us to think, form an opinion and then reveal something of ourselves. While we need to be careful about pushing too hard and forcing conversations, the right question can allow a young person to open up. We can joke that Jesus is the answer, but more often he is the question; as Martin B. Copenhaver said, in the Bible, Jesus asks 307 questions and answers three. Jesus was a master at posing questions that provoked the listener to think about a response: if you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Why do you worry about clothes? Who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Who do you say I am? Even simple questions can be loaded with meaning. Think about the questions you could ask that can bring both humour and depth to a conversation.
Positive relationships are not something that should be left to chance
We also need to be careful with the questions we ask as we might not be comfortable with the responses we get. When a young man with a bit of money to his name asked Jesus what he must do to receive eternal life. Jesus replied that he needed to follow all of the commandments. Now this young man, who had been following all the commandments, could have walked away happy. But he didn’t, and pushes Jesus for a different answer. Yet he ends up walking away disheartened.
This stage of progress can often be a comfortable place. You have a good relationship with young people and can work on projects together. It’s a pleasant groove to get into but it can easily become a rut if young people are not moved beyond this stage.
Once you have built relationships with a group of young people, there comes a point to start risking those relationships. It’s important to note that risk doesn’t mean exposing young people to any form of danger or anything unethical. Instead, from the foundations of a well-built relationship, it means challenging young people’s actions, values and behaviours in a direct, open way. It’s taking a calculated and deliberate risk to move the relationship forward. In the previous stage, you may have prompted a discussion about what constitutes a healthy romantic relationship because you’ve gleaned that some of the young people are starting to get into them. Through this discussion informal education would take place and maybe a consensus on what a healthy relationship looks like would be reached. In the ‘risk’ stage, your good relationship would mean that you could confront a young person, saying that you don’t think the relationship with their girlfriend or boyfriend is healthy and that they, with your support, need to change it.
These challenges must be grounded in the relationship that has been built, otherwise they can be destructive. In all these, you must remain open and supportive. It may be that the young person needs to go away and think about your challenge before responding, as you can often be asking them to change an attitude or behaviour that is part of who they are. This said, risks don’t have to be large or direct. Maybe intentionally talking about a local accident may provide the space to talk about life, death and the beyond. It could be a risk to take them somewhere unfamiliar, a different church experience, a day trip or a residential.
In youth work, relationships are built slowly but they should be built deliberately. Try not to find yourself floating from one encounter to the next, but take the time to think what might be done to move the relationship forward.
Walk in their shoes
Map a young person’s journey to the youth work. Do they come straight from school or from home? Do they participate in a church service first and then slip out? Who is the first person to welcome them? How are they greeted and what are they offered? By the end of the session what will they have learnt about you and the project? Have a young person look at your reflections and get them to add their own. You may want to adjust your processes according to your findings.
A list of questions
Create a list of questions with your team that are good at provoking a response. This can be especially useful for less confident team members, providing a crib sheet of interesting questions. Another resource can be ‘would you rather…?’ questions that you can search for online, but be prepared to edit them for appropriateness!
As relationships move forward, young people will feel more comfortable asking you and your team questions. Sit down with your team and discuss boundaries and what questions you might not want to answer and what alternative responses might be. For an example, if you are discussing sex and relationships you might be asking them questions that you might not want to answer yourself. What would you be uncomfortable answering or would be inappropriate to answer? How might you respond?
Take a risk
For the young people with whom you have solid relationships, how might you risk those relationships? It might be helpful to think in terms of the personal, social, community and spiritual sphere of young people’s lives. What might challenge them in those four areas? Maybe with a group, plan a residential in which everyone takes responsibility to provide an activity that challenges a group.
Positive relationships are not something that should be left to chance.