Mentoring: Starting a conversation

The following is an excerpt from the Mentor Guide from the Confirm not Conform program (details, if you want them), posted in honor of National Mentoring Month.

So you’re sitting there and you have this kid in front of you. Now what? You say, “How are you?”  The answer is “Fine.”  You say, “Tell me about school,” and you get a shrug. An awkward pause ensues and you wonder, “Will it always be like this?”

Start somewhere safe. Have a conversation about something neutral and fun, just to find a place to start. At the end of this handbook you will find a long list of Conversational Jump-Starters organized into categories for ease of reference. Take a look at them before your first meeting—or maybe for every meeting, making it a tradition. For fun, you might even jot a few down on slips of paper and have your youth pick one randomly, like cards in a deck.Building a relationship with youth may take some time, but eventually you will most likely find that conversation flows easily. It will be easier when you know something about one another and have more shared experiences upon which to draw. But how to get there?

Safety may also lie in posture. Many of you already know that youth who seem monosyllabic at best will chatter freely to you or to one another when they’re sitting behind you in the car. You might find it easier to have a conversation if you are driving or walking somewhere or seated side by side rather than face to face. Youth may feel more comfortable walking around or doing something than sitting or being stationary.

Also, consider the venue; if you are in a building where adults tend to have more power than youth, youth may find it more difficult to speak freely. If you are in a place where youth outnumber adults – say a café near the high school – then you are on the youth’s territory which may give the youth more confidence.

Know that you do not need to be cool. What you need to be is authentic. Do not try to make yourself into something you’re not. Don’t pretend to know all the answers. Youth can smell inauthenticity from a mile away. However, you will be amazed to find that even though you feel old, lost and flabby, youth will often refer to you as cool – not because you are so flashy and exciting, but because you care about them.

Ask clarifying questions if you don’t understand something. In some ways you will be learning another language and another culture. You’ll learn about peers and teachers, technology and television programs that you’ve never heard of before. You don’t need to know it all before you start. You’ll certainly know a lot more by the time you’re through.

Finally, accept what they offer and do your best to reserve judgment. In one session, they will have a favorite song to share with you. You may think this song is the most inane piece of trash you have ever heard, but remember it is important to them. Clarifying questions are your friend. “Why do you like this song?” may only get you a shrug as youth may not yet be able to articulate why they feel the way they do, but simply asking the question makes it clear that you have accepted their offering without judgment. Knowing they will be heard, youth will be far more willing to share what else is important to them.