Getting the best out of young people through good communication skills

Part One – Giving space to respond

Whether you work with youngsters, have some of your own, or just come across them now and again in those awkward moments when a friend arrives on your doorstep with her entire brood, getting the communication right is crucial – for them.

As an adult, it’s so very easy to forget that there is a huge gulf between us and young people ‘neuro-scientifically’. Their brains do not finish wiring up until around the age of 24! The lights might work but the sockets may not yet be connected. We adults have life experience that they can’t even imagine – or have only experienced through books or hearsay. And our ever increasing collection of experiences give us many more options when we need to make a choice or respond to someone, since we can run the new situation through our much larger number of filters of previous similar occurrences before we make a decision. That’s why we call it an ‘informed choice’. We have much more information to hand to make that choice.

When a young person is faced with a new, or relatively untested, situation or question – especially from a person “in authority” (think coach, parent, teacher) – in the absence of years of life experience, their brain filters start to ask questions:

  • Is there a right answer?
  • What does s/he mean by that question?
  • Is it a trick question?
  • Will I fail if I get it wrong?
  • Why are you asking me THAT question?
  • Why are YOU asking me that question?
  • What if I don’t know?

Think of the brain for a moment as a bucket of slightly muddy water. The younger you are and the fewer experiences you have had, the muddier the water. As you advance into adulthood, the more the water clears. And the reaction to THAT question you have just asked this young person is a bit like dropping a stone into that muddy water. More mud comes up and swirls around confusing the picture until it settles and clears a little.

That’s what it can feel like when you ask young people questions.

Questions are good. Open questions are great – allowing a person to answer for and about themselves without making assumptions for them. Closed questions are rarely a good idea in this context. But you must first wait until the muddy, swirling waters have subsided, allowing the young person the clarity of thinking to produce a reply.

Working effectively with young people requires a huge amount of patience in allowing them the time and space to think about what they are experiencing and feeling before coming up with an answer. And sometimes they simply don’t have the vocabulary to explain what they want you to know. At this point, if you don’t give them the space and time they need to respond to you, there is a real risk of alienating them, putting distance between you because you “just don’t understand” – you don’t “get” them.

I have always been a bit of a people watcher. It’s my absolute favourite guilty pleasure at coffee shops, on the underground or at ice rinks. I see, and often overhear, conversations between parent and child, coach and skater which are just doomed to failure.

Assumptions are made by the adults lacking the patience to wait for the young person to respond and they jump in with conclusions that are completely off track. The young person, lacking the enormous amount of confidence it would take to correct an adult, shrugs, and internalises their frustration. The gap between them and the adult widens a tiny bit more and that incredibly important trust which was there is diminished just a tiny bit each time this happens.

I don’t need to spell out the end game of this scenario. It should be clear to any adult that poor questioning, assumptions and a lack of patience on your part is a practice which will erode the youngster’s confidence over time and risks seriously damaging their trust in you.

(In Part Two I talk about the importance of ‘timing’ and why saying something at the wrong time can have a negative impact on their confidence)