We have all experienced a time when we believed we had a genuine connection with a person, only to find out that they had a specific agenda in mind.
We have all experienced someone that has tried to proselytize or preach at us, to use us to get ahead, or to gain access to our friends or family members. For many people, what starts out as a genuine connection dissolves almost instantly as soon as the sirens of topics such as politics or religion are sounded. We know how difficult it can be to have critical conversations and nurture relationships when these types of selfish relationships find their way into our lives.
Creating Real Connections
As adults, many of us are discovering that we are (or have been) those people – and this is incredibly humbling. We’ve had to do some serious self-work and think about how we wish to relate with those around us. We’ve learned that by listening to people with whom we might disagree, without intention to convince, convert, cajole, or caress, we actually create deeper relationships. People come to trust us on their terms because they sense we accept them for who they are without the impulse to change them. They sense they are loved.
Encouraging Youth to Create Positive and Constructive Interactions
In the quagmire of the teen years, how do we pass this spiritual discipline on to our youth? Being accepted by peer groups, in their eyes, can often feel more important than breathing.
And in an age where politicians are screaming at each other over social media and there is severe polarization over hot-button issues in almost every conversation, how are young teens supposed to integrate constructive conversations when grownups are not modeling it for them?
Let me make a few suggestions:
1. People aren’t flies.
The old maxim “You’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar” speaks about winning people over. But this is still a form of an agenda. We want our youth to fully embrace others around them, without the need to win them over with their ideology or opinions. We need to help our youth identify positive ways to hold real conversations and forge authentic relationships.
2. Active Listening: teach youth the value of open-ended questions.
What is important to you? How do you practice your faith? What does it mean to be in a GSA? By being truly interested in the lives, thoughts, and opinions of those around them, they will be seen as open and trustworthy.
3. Teach them to release their own need to be heard first.
Sometimes we’re taught that if we don’t share the things that convict us with others, we are somehow devaluing the convictions and belief systems we’ve been taught. I would suggest that this view is, in part, what causes divisions. If we only listen to others to pass the time until we can speak , we will inevitably feel like a part of a sea of voices clamoring to be heard. In an age of loud voices, we need youth who understand when to put aside their own views so that their neighbor’s voice can be heard. By practicing this form of active listening in order to create a safe conversational space for peers, a foundation of trust begins to form, friendships spring up between unlikely people, and youth become known for their character rather than their rhetoric.
4. Help youth discern when life demands their voice.
It’s good that we model for our youth how to listen without needing to be heard, but what about when people share offensive things – toward them or toward others? It is important that youth know that being an open and safe person also includes refusing to be a doormat. If a peer is openly sharing personal views about a gay classmate that are derogatory or mean-spirited, it is vital that young people find firm and disarming words: “You know, you’re being mean right now and I don’t want to be a part of mean conversations.” And walk away. Light has been spoken into darkness, and walking away is as much as an exercise in shining that light as are verbal words.
Life is never quite this simple, of course. This is why, if we begin to see listening without needing to be heard as a spiritual discipline, we will see relationships begin to build with our community, with God, and others. It takes time to cultivate such a mindset; there will be plenty of mistakes, and it won’t always bear the fruit we want it to (even if we tell ourselves we aren’t in it for the fruit). However, I do believe that encouraging a safe space for conversation with those with different views our youth will grow into adults who bear the maturity to navigate calmly the violent waters around us.
For breakfast I had one egg, a banana, and toast with coconut peanut butter.