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‘Rules’ of Engagement – Connecting with young people

As I do whenever I can, I have put together some written words and a video. So you’re welcome to watch and listen or just read what follows. Or of course, you can do both, though perhaps just one at a time? Then again…

The written words and the video say pretty much the same thing, there are just a few more words in the writing.

‘Engaging’ with a young person is the one stand-out thing I am asked about over and over again; especially in relation to young people who seem harder to reach, harder to connect with; or in situations which seem to make this harder. And that might be because it’s the circumstances of how and where we are meeting, or because someone is compelled to ‘speak’ with us, or there’s just a lot going on around us, or the setting suggests something unattractive, unappealing to this young person – and that might be a school or a detention centre or a counselling room or the city for a country person or vice versa, or someone from another country – anywhere that they really just don’t feel connected to or part of. This all makes it harder and it means we probably need to be brief – and interesting. Easier said than done. So the following are the principles that underpin my work. I am not talking here about activities or strategies to engage with young people. There are lots of these on my website. So this post and video are more about the  ideas or principles that my work rest on. It’s often the case that I no longer consciously think about these principles, but they are embedded in all that I do and guide what I do. There are other important concepts that flow through my work too but the video is long enough as it is! Here they are.

Connect, build a relationship

Just how we go about doing this will depend on our role as a worker, our purpose in engaging with a young person, what we have to offer a young person given our role, and the circumstances under which we are meeting them. But whenever or wherever we are, we need to be relevant, meaningful and importantly…interesting. Often too I would suggest, we need to be brief and move fairly fast, but without rushing.

Feel ‘it’

If we want a young person to ‘know’ what we have to offer, they need to ‘feel’ it; to experience it. So if I believe, as I do, that autonomy, agency, some choice, some sense of ‘control’ is important to all of us, and of course the evidence for this is enormous, then I need to build this into our interactions, so that a young person experiences this as genuine. And it might be something like: ‘I’m going to suggest we take turns and ask each other three questions. They can be about anything at all, and we can each decide if we answer them out loud or keep our answers to ourselves. Which one of us should start do you think?’ The young person is in charge of what they ask, they are in charge of whether they voice an answer, and they can decide who will start. Autonomy. And the activity tells the young person that this is a two way conversation, not a lecture; it’s a process of mutuality, and within this conversation there is choice, and the activity suggests the possibility of exploring something important if we decide to go there. Will something like this work with every young person on every occasion? Of course not. The ‘activity’ the ‘strategy’ could be anything at all, but the thinking remains the same. The activity in the next paragraph, ‘Five questions’ could equally fit into this situation. And importantly this complete process, whether discussed openly or not, is not secret. It is definitely intentional, but it is equally genuine, organic and completely open.

From the ‘Playful’ the ‘Lighthearted’,  to the more serious

Please do not think in terms of ice-breakers here. The term, perhaps unreasonably, bothers me. But it does bother me and it’s because I think ‘ice-breaker’ suggests something frivolous, perhaps fun. There’s nothing wrong with fun and it’s a fabulous way to build connection and get to know each other. But I think it’s more helpful to think more in terms of doing something that will help build the connection between us, create the atmosphere or ‘feel’ for what we are about to do, or what we might do if the a connection is established. And the ‘feel’ will depend on what that is. If we need to connect so a young person can find out if we might be a good counsellor for them, then we might make this offer: ‘I’m going to ask you to ask me a maximum of five questions so you can find out if I am someone who might be a good person to talk through some important stuff with...’ So a person will ‘feel’ the honesty and the risk-taking in this offer. Because if I am not the right fit for this young person, that’s a good thing to know, and together we can find the right person.

If we are going to run a group in a school we might use different question-based approach, and suggest a swap between us and the group. Anyone can ask us a question about anything and we can, after each question, ask the group a question. The group will ‘feel’ the democratic, reciprocal nature of what we do.

How B4 the what

This simply means making sure a young person knows ‘how’ a conversation might proceed before getting to whatever is important to them. So I might ask a young person three questions about about music or music artists and ask them to reply with a rating from 1 to 10 where 10 is Totally awesome and 1 is Totally terrible. So that’s ‘how’ our conversation might proceed, and the content, the ‘what’ is an easy and familiar topic. The young person finds out ‘how’ our conversation B4 we get to the more important, probably more sensitive ‘what’ of why we are. We can start to move onto questions like: ‘Again using our scale, let me ask you just how life is for you right now?’ How is school going? How are you getting on with your mum? Your ‘boy/girl friend?’ No embarrassment or confusion about ‘How’ the conversation is going; so now we can just focus on ‘What’ we are talking about.

Check in…

If the conversation becomes a bit sensitive, tricky, intimate, perhaps even potentially ‘explosive’ we can check in with the person to see how they are ‘travelling.’ Are we okay? We’re doing some tough stuff here, how are you feeling?’ ‘Shall we stop in a couple of minutes?’ ‘Stop now and re-visit this later, because it is important?’ ‘Let me just see how you’re feeling right now?’

Ask for Permission

This is related to the ‘Check in’. Simply asking for permission to proceed or go deeper, or more intimately, or to what we may both know is the reason we are even having the conversation. ‘So we do need to talk about ….Shall we jump into that now?’ ‘And how long shall we allow for this part of our chat for today?’ ‘And is it okay if I ask you some pretty personal questions?’  ‘And will you be able to let me know if I am going too fast, or becoming too personal…?

More than talk

A person simply thinking about things, or reflecting on something can be a powerful part of a conversation. Or writing something down; words, symbols, drawings…or we can get out our mobile phone and show a young person a music video, an inspiring ‘something’, a relevant photo…all useful and often powerful ways of communicating. More than words!

Use the passing parade

There is a whole world around us that we can draw on. If we are in a room, it might be that we use items to represent thoughts, feelings or experiences. Or the colours around us to represent our feelings about someone, ourselves, a place, an event, a relationship…If we find ourselves in the street or looking out a window, then people and vehicles can be assets to our conversation. ‘Where do we think that woman is headed in such a hurry?’ What about that boy on the bike?’ ‘Where is that bus headed do you think?’ ‘What is that delivery delivering do you think?’ ‘If that package was for you what would you like to be in it?’

Privacy and choice

Throughout this process there is a constant asking of questions. This means a young person has choice as to how they answer. And importantly it may be the case that they answer questions internally and answers remain unvoiced. This invites courage and honesty. And importantly, it also creates the experience of agency…


We know that a sense of control, autonomy or agency – whatever we call this – is fundamental to the mental health of humans. And within a conversation: Privacy + Choice = Agency.


If I ask a young person a question then they are welcome to ask me the same question. Or a different one. My answer is what sets the ‘professional boundary’ not the question. And there are many many ways I can answer. This mutuality, this two-way process has appeal simply because it’s mutual, and two way. It feels ‘fair’, and this is in itself appealing.

A young person’s experience of themself as someone of genuine value

Ideally, every interaction we have with a young person, adds just some small thing which helps them experience themself as a worthwhile, capable, caring, courageous human being. The simple exchange of questions can do this. A comment to the young person, or a question about their respectful response to us, holds up a mirror to them so they see their own worth. And simply listening, openly and without judgement, is, in itself, an experience for some young people, that they have value; they have a voice, they are someone worth listening to. They, like all of us, are human and of value.

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