Which Listener Are You?

Youth Specialties
May 13th, 2014

Our longtime friend Jonathan McKee shared this great post with us. You can check him out this year at NYWC.

Original photo by Melvin Gaal.

Which Listener Are You?

Two teenagers each sit down in front of an adult in two totally separate venues. In each situation an adult asks questions and the teenager responds. 

In one of these situations the teenager is freed to express himself and literally can’t stop talking. 

In the other situation the teenager clams up immediately. 

What’s the difference? 

Maybe you’ve experienced this. You’re trying to engage a teenager in conversation, but he or she immediately puts up a wall and you feel like you are prying answers from the kid. 

Let me introduce you to the two types of listeners: the parole officer and the counselor. One asks questions in search for a violation, the other listens to understand. 


First, I apologize to all parole officers for the stigma. I’m sure there are some great parole officers out there who really care, but I simply use the example because most people are not excited about sitting down in front of an individual who is not only going to ask them questions from a position of authority, but also has the ability to use the provided information against them! It’s a one-up relationship and in most situations, the parolee isn’t very excited to be questioned in the first place. 

Questions can be great tools to engage young people, but not when you ask them like a parole officer in search of a violation.

“Where were you last night?” 

“Was that boy Chris with you?”

These questions aren’t asked with the intent to get to know your kid; they are being asked to gather incriminating evidence. As soon as the poor kid answers something wrong you’ll exclaim, “Aha! I knew it!” 

Similarly, some people ask nagging questions.

Did you turn in your permission slip? 

Did you finish the lawns? 

Did you feed Wolfgang?

Don’t ask questions like a person looking for malfeasance. 

Don’t ask questions like someone who actually uses the word “malfeasance!” 

Instead, ask question like… 


Counselors bill as much as $300 per hour. 

What is so special about what they do? 

They listen without judgment. They sit in a chair for an hour, talking a little, listening a lot… and people pay them big bucks to do so. 


People want to be heard. People want to be understood. People want someone who is willing to put all of their other interests aside and focus 100% of their attention on them, without distraction. 

Most people have to pay for this. 

Funny, in the beginning of my book, Get Your Teenager Talking, I provide a handful of pointers about how to engage young people in conversation. In those first few pages I recommend a skill rarely used by parents. 

The skill is this: notice

Counselors notice. They notice body language, tone and word choice. One reason they are able to do this is because they are actually paying attention. They aren’t doing bills or putting away groceries while casually asking, “How was your day?” 

When’s the last time you stopped and noticed your son or daughter. What are they wearing? Why did they dress that way today? What are they looking forward to more than anything that day? What are they loathing? What helps them numb the pain? Who can they share that pain with? 

Do you know the answers to these questions? 

If you want to get to know your kid like this, you have to learn to approach them like someone who wants to get to know them… not someone looking for malfeasance

Which listener are you?

Jonathan McKee, president of The Source for Youth Ministry, is the author of over a dozen books including the new Get Your Teenager TalkingThe Guy's Guide to God, Girls and the Phone in Your PocketThe Zombie Apocalypse Survival Guide for Teenager, and youth ministry books like Ministry By Teenagers, Connect: Real Relationships in a World of Isolation, and the 10-Minute Talks series. Jonathan speaks and trains at conferences, churches and events across North America, all while providing free resources for youth workers and parents on his websites, TheSource4YM.com and TheSource4Parents.com. You can follow Jonathan on his blog, getting a regular dose of youth culture and parenting help. Jonathan and his wife Lori, and their three teenagers Alec, Alyssa and Ashley live in California.

Youth Specialties

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.