The Art of Shutting Up

Jonathan McKee
September 6th, 2013

Duct Tape! Learning how to shut up and listen

I’ve got a big mouth. Always have. When I was young, I actually had people ask me, “Do you ever shut up?”

You’ve most likely encountered people like this. If they never learned to be quiet and listen to others, chances are they aren’t very fun to be around. No one likes to be around someone who used the word “I” in every sentence.

Too often, youth workers err on the side of talking instead of listening, and, like me, they need to learn the delicate art of “shutting up.” This is an essential discipline in youth ministry…. and life!

Last year at the YS Palooza conferences (now called YS Team Training) I taught a session to youth workers providing them with five essential tools they could use leading effective small groups.

Any guess what the first tool was?

Duct tape! Covering our mouths.

Many of us… scratch that… the majority of us need to learn the art of being quiet so we can focus on listening. Teenagers don’t need another lecture. They need someone who will notice them and listen to how they feel.

What does this actually look like?

Small Groups

A teenager just finishes listening to a 25-minute sermon, and then the group divides into small groups “to discuss.” At this point, which format do you think young people prefer? Listening to yet another monologue, or participating in a dialogue?

When is this kid going to be able to share his or her thoughts and feelings?

Typically, when I speak at camps I provide small group questions for discussion afterwards. And every time, without exception, the same thing happens. Small group leaders start lecturing instead of listening. It doesn’t matter if the camp leader hands them well-written questions that provoke conversation. As I walk around and peek in on small groups, I almost always see the same thing in numerous groups: a leader rambling on and on, and a bunch of kids forcing themselves to listen once again.

Imagine what our small groups could look like if we transformed our lecturing into listening?

Young people want to be heard. Are you giving them a chance?

One-on-one Time

Consider our face-to-face time with young people. What is one of the greatest tools we can use during this time?

I can’t think of a better tool than a thoughtful question.

“What is your favorite thing to do right after school ever day?”

“Who do you enjoy hanging out with just for fun?”

“Who do you feel like you can really talk with?”

Why are questions so effective? Probably because questions are tools that keep them talking and us listening.

If you’ve sat in a booth across from a young person, then you know that no two kids are exactly alike. Some kids are angry at God, others are open to him, some have already received him, and some are really excited about their relationship with him. How are you going to know who you are talking to if you don’t listen?

That’s probably why my book about connecting with young people is full of sample questions you can ask the different types of kids you encounter.


Listening isn’t a skill limited to youth ministry venues. Those of us who are parents also need to learn when to close our mouths and open our ears.

I’ve never heard a teenager complain, “My mom listens to me waaaaaaaay too much. I wish she would just tell me what to do!”

As parents, we can learn the art of eventually replacing commands with, “What do you think you should do here?” And it never hurts to come up with some creative questions instead of just asking, “How was your day?” every day.

When you have the opportunity to share spiritual truths with your own kids, is it a monologue or a dialogue?

Do your own kids feel heard?

* * *

People want to be heard, and it’s hard for us to listen to someone else when our jaw is flapping so much.

Try something this week. Try to not give a single piece of advice until you’ve asked at least 10 questions (this is actually really good marriage advice as well).

What are you waiting for? Text a kid right now: Hey Jake, if you could have a $10 gift card to any food place, where would you choose?

If Jake responds, Starbucks, then text back:

Good to know. Now I know what to get you for your birthday. Hey… wanna connect for coffee there tomorrow after school… just for fun?


Jonathan McKee

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.