First Seek to Understand… Stephen R. Covey
I attended a motivational meeting aimed at helping men find their purposes. A discussion was well underway…
Someone raised his hand and asked,
“How would a teenager feel about this…?”
The presenter stumbled over his words, finally saying that teenagers are just teenagers, “they don’t make any sense at all and are not worth the bother.”
One of just a few teens in the audience reached out to me during the break. He felt deflated. He already had doubts about himself and his worth. He wondered why he was even in the seminar. Was he even relevant?
In a community forum I listened to a twenty-year veteran high school teacher who was deemed to be an expert in working with teens. He said a typical teen was “nothing more than a pair of jeans filled with hormones.” He went on to add that they are not people that you could reason with.” He suggested not even trying to actually understand them or to genuinely reach them.
The message that I got was to just ignore teens and to not think about them.
To love someone you need to know something about who they are and what they’re made of.
Are Teenagers People Too?
If you’re not a teenager now, you were one, for seven critical years of your life. You were seeking identity and belonging, purpose and direction. You wanted approval and recognition. These are motivating factors, but acting on them is challenging. Looking back on your teenage years, there were so many giants to overcome, even though some of them seem silly and minor compared to your current big boy or big girl adult problems. You may now be separated from those years by time, but your experiences then are providing you with either tools or burdens that impact your life today.
Seeking to Understand
A school vice-principal called me for police assistance. A 15-year-old boy was getting more and more unmanageable. He was suddenly constantly in trouble. This school administrator employed the standard options available to deal with the young man.
But the vice-principal felt deeply for whatever the boy must have been going through. He was as concerned for him as he was for the other students who were disrupted by his behavior. The boy’s four older brothers had also gone off the rails at the same age. On several occasions the mother visited the vice principal in his office. She threw her hands in the air, out of ideas as to why each of her boys rebelled in a big way, at the same age. She saw her son as broken and wanted a counselor to fix him. The young man flatly refused to see a counselor.
I wanted to learn more. I wasn’t about to ignore him. I sought to understand. He hadn’t refused to talk to a police officer, so I went to his home to make that offer. The idea had never been come up. His mother made it clear that her son refused to see a counselor. I asked if I could talk to him and she said I could try.
He eagerly took the invitation, confident that I would listen. He immediately felt validated because I was interested in listening, period. I listened, intently. He opened up a reservoir of fifteen years of emotions and experiences. He was hurting deeply. As he talked, his countenance changed. He analyzed his life and his environment.
I continued to listen.
He tapped into his experiences and put together an action plan of where to go from there. I didn’t make any suggestions. He was extremely intelligent and knew the answers. It was evident that he had thought about it quite a bit. He just didn’t know where to find his confidence or who he could trust.
He taught me what he had internally learned and how he would apply it to following a new but challenging path. He recognized what environmental factors he could change and those he could not. He gained confidence simply because somebody listened.
His environment and people around him changed in ways he couldn’t have imagined. The universe began to work in his favor. His understanding of himself and others grew exponentially. Most importantly he felt loved by people in his life and new positive people were drawn to him.
So, How Do You Love a Teenager?
Recently a friend asked me this profound question. This was such an important question I didn’t want to just rattle off an answer, so I sought an expert. I texted a teenage friend who had been through very rough times. From a painful place he’s made it his calling and mission in life to help other teens around him feel validated, understood, and loved.
His response came immediately in thirty words:
“How to love a teenager is to listen, observe, don’t lecture but explain. Talk about interests but do not correct everything. Simply care about them and make sure they know.”
- Don’t lecture, explain
- Talk about interests
- Don’t correct everything
- Simply care about them and make sure they know
Seek to Understand (A), Then to Be Understood (B). -Stephen R. Covey.You will not fully love them without knowing who they are. Anticipate that you may have a lot to learn.
Sincere listening is one of the most generous gifts you can give. It is a gift of love. Be available to listen. There are usually key times when teens are ready to talk. Look for these opportunities and accommodate them. It may be when they first some home from school, a date, or an event. It might be during household chores. Arrange one-on-one time doing something or going somewhere that interests them. Your goal is to listen, not to force or interrogate, and not to judge.
Doctor S. I. Hayakawa warned of the temptation to deviate from listening in order to prepare in your own mind a strategic, response to prove who’s right. -Language in Thought and Action, S.I. Hayakawa, 1949. This creates a divisive wedge and either puts the teen on defense, or in shutdown or flight mode.
Teenagers tend to leave clues, knowingly and unknowingly if something is wrong. If knowingly, they are genuinely reaching out, they have something to express but may not know how to approach it. A friend was in an abusive family situation and knew things were wrong but didn’t know how to express the fact or to whom he could express it. He would literally get sick frequently at school and often had to run out of the classroom. He desperately wanted someone to notice that something was wrong. Nobody picked up on the cues. He felt alone and isolated.
Don’t Lecture, Explain.
Lecturing may sometimes stem from love, but it does not express love. A feeling of mutual trust will motivate both parties to seek understanding through explanation. You have arrived here when your teen sincerely wants to know how you feel and why.
If you force your point, you may think you have won the argument in your own mind. But in the process you may be losing your teenager.
Talk About Interests
Validate. Don’t shoot holes in their ideas or accomplishments. They can do that on their own. They will ask for help once they feel safe and validated.
Ask them about things their collections and how they matter, such as movie memorabilia, photos, posters, etc. Learn about the games they play and virtual worlds they explore online. Perhaps an online game is providing them a world that they can control, an attempt to gain confidence. Whatever the case, they will teach you a lot, if you are patient enough for real learning. You should be gaining deep insights, not only into their lives, but also your own.
Don’t Correct Everything
Life is a process, an experience. Don’t cause them fear harsh judgment when sharing their life and experiences with you. Learning continues throughout life. Don’t expect perfection at any specific moment.
Simply care about them and make sure they know.
Love brings love in return. Let them know how you feel, and why.