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Creating space for dialogue on difficult and important topics with youth

What it is

Life offers many opportunities for caring adults to have conversations with youth about challenging topics and the world around them. Current events or a young person's personal life may spark these opportunities. Youth may want to talk about important topics such as racism, white privilege, sex, gun violence, mental health, death, politics. They need to learn how to have dialogue with others in a positive, civil manner. The 4-H program can be a safe and caring place for these discussions to happen.  

This resource is designed to help families, clubs, or groups of friends to have open conversations about difficult but important topics. It has guidelines for creating a safe space for all to share feelings, thoughts, concerns or ideas about important topics. Practice listening to different viewpoints without trying to “fix” or “change” them. 

Why it matters

  • Quality youth development practice says that youth need to feel safe and to have spaces in which to discuss conflicting values and form their own, as well as to  understand and respect the values and beliefs of others.
  • How we talk about things matters.  Youth need to learn how to: 
    • Respectfully express their opinion 
    • Civilly acknowledge those who hold different beliefs from our own
    • Understand multiple perspectives from peers, family and others

Getting started

As caring adults, we can create spaces for youth where they feel safe about sharing their ideas and points of view. We don’t need to do this perfectly—we just need to be willing to take a risk, check our own biases and open an imperfect but real space. Here are some ways to create a safe and respectful space with a supportive tone: 

  • Acknowledge participants' possible discomfort. Reassure them that their feelings are valid and their contributions to the discussion are valuable. Acknowledge that you might also feel uncomfortable instigating the conversation. Discuss the parts of a group agreement as tough topics are discussed. Help the group incorporate an agreement they are all comfortable with.
  • Help youth practice having constructive, civil dialogue characterized by listening respectfully to multiple perspectives. CivilPolitics.org defines civility as “the ability to disagree productively with others, respecting their sincerity and decency.” In the context of youth development, civility brings with it the chance to:
    • Understand and be understood by others
    • Build relationships
    • Uncover multiple perspectives
    • Collectively improve critical and creative thinking skills
    • Work together to solve problems
    • Let go of the “us versus them” mentality
  • Use and teach active listening skills. We must listen and  watch body language.  We need to read people’s response to us in order to determine how to best be respectful.  In some contexts it is more respectful to avoid eye contact, for example with an elder.  Here are four general rules to active listening:
    1. Seek to understand before you seek to be understood
    2. Be non-judgmental and use empathetic listening
    3. Give your undivided attention with your body language
    4. Use silence effectively.  Silence is indeed golden, especially when used to gather information as a listener.

How to do it

Sometimes these topics come up spontaneously, but other times we might be able to organize a meeting specifically about an important topic. Either way, it is important to encourage everyone to be open to different points of view.  These topics may be uncomfortable but that is why it’s important to have dialogue about them.  Role modeling civil dialogue and your willingness to be uncomfortable with important conversations is a teachable moment for youth. Youth will follow your lead and expand their communication and leadership skills around difficult topics and how it is conducted.  

There are many ways to approach difficult conversations for different age groups. The examples of strategies listed below are from the Facing History and Ourselves website designed more for teen-aged youth. These activities help promote dialogue which can create space for diverse viewpoints and encourage active listening and consideration of multiple perspectives. 

Take it further

Authors: Karyn Santl, MaryAnn Anderson, Dianna Kennedy, Extension educators

Reviewer: Kathryn Sharpe, Extension educator

Reviewed in 2020

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