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Help volunteers have the hard conversations

By Kathryn Sharpe

View from behind four people looking at city
All of us who work with and care about young people feel the incredible weight of the issues facing them today, and we see the impact on their wellbeing. For those of us running programs with volunteers, however, we as youth workers or volunteer managers may not be the ones to actually have the conversations with young people when these topics arise. We have the unique task of trying to help other adults be prepared to engage in these conversations, even though it is unpredictable what the topic will be or when it will surface.  

Our volunteers are essential caring adults in the lives of youth, and hopefully they have developmental relationships with the young people in our programs. But, our volunteers may not feel equipped to engage with young people about some of the biggest, often controversial—and most important—issues they face. The news alone can bring up issues such as mass shootings, abortion, anti-trans legislation, or racist violence. How can we help volunteers to address these challenging topics with youth?

First, we can explicitly encourage volunteers to engage. Let them know that these conversations are definitely within the scope of their volunteer work doing positive youth development. They may have signed up to volunteer in a particular content or skill area, but young people show up with their full selves and we need to as well. This can mean being vulnerable and opening themselves up to uncomfortable emotions, an example of the "invisible work" of volunteers that we sometimes don’t recognize or fully appreciate.  

We can equip volunteers with a set of tools for managing the feelings that can arise when a young person unexpectedly raises a hard topic. A simple framework by Learning for Justice is:

  • Step 1: Reiterate. Restate what you heard—this allows them to reflect on what they heard and avoids miscommunication or misunderstanding.
  • Step 2: Contemplate. Count to 10 before responding—taking a little time to think about your responses helps you to be more intentional and avoids emotional responses which can be unhelpful.
  • Step 3: Breathe. Take a breath to check in with yourself—this can help settle your body and mind during difficult conversations.
  • Step 4: Communicate. Speak with compassion and thoughtfulness—encourage them to assume good intentions and seek to understand. Remember that youth are in the process of figuring out their beliefs and this is an important and trusting moment to be invited into. When disagreeing with something a youth said, focus on challenging the statement rather than the person who made it.

If there are multiple volunteers with different perspectives in a program, this is a strength, not a barrier.  They should talk about how they can intentionally—and respectfully—role model having a discussion with different points of view. If they do not have people with multiple opinions, it still can be helpful to say, "People who have a different opinion about this issue might say…" to help youth see the other perspective, if it is not discriminatory or untrue. The actual topic area (no matter how passionate they are about it) is less important in the long term than helping youth develop the critical thinking skills to approach controversial topics from a range of perspectives.

Help volunteers discern when they need to refer the issue beyond themselves, such as a mandated reporting situation if there is risk of harm to the young person or others. Let volunteers know that they should talk with organizational staff if this comes up, both to figure out what needs to be reported, and to identify resources for the young person and/or family.

How do you support volunteers to engage youth in conversations about challenging issues when they arise?

-- Kathryn Sharpe, Extension educator

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  1. Kathryn, thank you for bringing forward this topic and discussion on really what is the nature of discussion itself. I have been personally reflecting a lot on what conversation is really intended to be about. What is the essential purpose of conversation? This is of course a loaded question, as conversation may have a myriad of purposes - to connect, to encourage, to persuade, to challenge. The list could go on.

    As youth development educators I think it is important that we work with others to see conversation and dialogue as a process for sharing perspectives, gaining understanding, and connecting deeper to others. When we see conversation in this way, we recognize that the act of conversation has more to do with my relationship to others, then it does to my own ideas.

    How would the spaces we work with young people in change if we approached our conversations with this mindset?

    1. Jeremy, thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. Indeed, I agree that at the heart of a conversation/discussion is connection--both with other people and with our deeper selves. The reality for us as people is that our idea, opinions, and perspectives are continually evolving through our life experiences. If we can help young people learn how to listen and grapple with ideas, it better prepares them to think about issues as they encounter them. I think we can shift our spaces with young people by bringing questions rather than answers as our primary content we share with them. Thank you for thinking on this with me!

  2. Kathryn,
    I appreciate the 4 step simple framework that can be utilized in a time of need. It is simple to understand and aligns with our mission of positive youth development.
    Thank you for sharing.

  3. Thanks for the post, Kathryn. This is a helpful and framework to keep in mind. Are there additional steps you'd add if the young person expresses opinions based on stereotypes or things that the volunteer knows or suspects may not be true?


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