“NO, AMELIA! DON’T DO THAT!”
This again? I think to myself. If I had a dollar for every time I heard my daughter yell at her sister, I’d be an incredibly rich man.
Don’t get me wrong; my daughters love each other, but like all sisters, they don’t always get along. Usually my 8-year-old, Ava, is tormented by her 4-year-old sister’s incredibly destructive power, particularly when Amelia gets her hands on one of big sister’s prized possessions.
Most recently, she broke a crystal butterfly that Ava got on a family vacation we took a few years ago, and if there’s one thing Ava loves, it’s butterflies. This butterfly.
So when Amelia gets her hands on something Ava loves (a common event), it isn’t long before I hear a very loud protest from across the house (an equally common event).
Unfortunately, I don’t always have the best frame of mind when I hear this shouting begin, and since Ava is the one shouting, I can sometimes barge into the room and assume that Ava is the one who is acting out of order. She’s yelling at a 4-year-old! Clearly she’s being the mean one here!
Yet when I enter the room with that frame of mind, I have no curiosity, and instead enter the space in order to set the record straight, and my objective is singular: end the yelling.
But this is almost never helpful.
Ava is yelling for a reason. Not because she hates her sister, but because she loves whatever is most recently in death’s grip at Amelia’s hand.
Something different happens, however, when I enter the room with curiosity, when I approach the situation with an open mind and an open heart, and most importantly, with open ears.
When I can calmly maintain a posture of curiosity, I can actually ask what is going on, and I can hear the frustration that Amelia keeps getting into Ava’s stuff, and I can ultimately hear the grief of another lost valuable.
In listening, I can connect with Ava’s distress, instead of simply trying to manage her behavior. Fortunately, this often has the result of calming her down, but not because she has been disciplined.
Because she has been seen.
Because she feels known.
Christian psychiatrist Curt Thompson has a beautiful saying:
We all come into this world looking for someone who is looking for us.
When a child is born, after a few startled cries, they begin the first and most primary task of their lives: recognition.
They begin looking for a face, and when they find that face, they will hold eyes with that face with rapt attention. It is there in the context of seeing someone seeing them that the infant’s sense of self begins to emerge.
It is in the context of that relationship that they truly begin to become a person.
They are seen.
When such a connection doesn’t happen, when babies aren’t held, when they aren’t seen, babies actually fail to develop and in some cases, they even die. Even if babies are fed, even if they are clothed, the simple deprivation of human contact, the lack of recognition and touch can lead to this failure to thrive.
What’s more, however, is that this basic human need to be seen, to be known never goes away.
We will always be looking for someone who is looking for us.
Today’s young people are no different; they are human, after all.
Like all of us, young people need someone to see them, to recognize them, to know them.
Unfortunately, for most of us, the most common source of recognition that we seem to get is through our phone’s Face ID capability. It is the phone that sees us more than we see one another.
Last post I suggested that the only thing that truly matters in the Christian life is Jesus Christ, and I stand by that. Without Him, everything we do is meaningless.
But as baptized Christians, we have been initiated and attached to the very Body of Christ Himself. We, though our participation in His Life, are thus invited to be His very presence in the lives of one another.
For our young people, we are given the opportunity to be the very eyes and ears of Christ, the only One who matters.
We get to be the evidence that the Lord of all sees them and hears them, and the Church, the Body of Christ, can become the very place where young people know they can reliably turn in moments of distress, discomfort, and discouragement, but only if they experience a network of relationships where they are consistently and reliably known and loved.
But moments of true transformation and soothing don’t happen when we spend lots of time talking. In fact, I think we all need to talk less because true healing through the Body of Christ happens when people are seen.
Consider how many times the Gospel authors tell us that Christ saw someone.
Jesus saw Nathaniel under the tree.
Jesus saw Zacchaeus in a tree.
Jesus saw the man who had been paralyzed for 38-years, and then He healed him.
So, too, for us and for young people, seeing precedes healing. So here’s 3 ways that you can begin to love young people better. To see someone is to love them, and it begins by focusing less on making sure they understand you and by focusing more on making sure you understand them.
So here we go.
Like, really listen.
I know. It seems obvious, but it needs to be said.
Many of us have experienced being in a conversation with someone who just isn’t really listening to us. They may respond as if they are, but we have a felt sense when someone is just waiting for their turn to talk or when something else is taking part of their attention away from the present moment.
So when you’re listening to someone, put the phone down, and look at them.
When you feel tempted to turn the conversation toward yourself…easy. Don’t do it. Pass up at least 3 opportunities to say, “When I was your age,” or “I went through something similar myself.”
If you find that your attention has wandered and you don’t know what someone just said, admit it. Gently say, “I’m so sorry, but I got a little lost in my own thoughts there. Can you repeat that? I want to make sure I’m hearing everything you’re saying.” Believe it or not, this builds trust because chances are that they also felt your attention wander. Naming reality says, “Hey, I just want you to know you’re so important to me that I don’t want anything, not even my thoughts, to get in the way of me really hearing you.”
If you don’t understand what someone is saying, it’s okay to ask clarifying questions. In fact, it’s often said that “the second question” is the one where real listening happens. To that end, practice this phrase:
Tell me more.
It’s usually best to refrain from asking questions that exist to satisfy your own morbid curiosity. If someone says that they didn’t feel well last night, it’s probably not the best to ask, “Did you throw up?” That is not a question borne out of compassionate curiosity; it’s much more about you.
If you really pay attention with compassionate curiosity, on the other hand, you will frequently find the right questions to ask as long as you are continually seeking to understand what someone is telling you from their perspective.
One of the best ways someone knows you are hearing and understanding them is if you are able to repeat back what they just told you.
It may seem a little strange at first to do this, but in time, it will feel far more natural.
This isn’t just about echoing what someone said…that can feel off-putting.
Young Person: I feel sad.
Adult: So you’re sad?
Young Person: Yes.
Adult: So you are sad.
Young Person: Uh…[silently prays someone texts them and rescues them from this interaction.]
See? It’s weird.
Reflections are all about being a mirror for someone. They’re about saying, “I see you, and I want you to see that I see you.”
So when you’re reflecting what someone has said to you, you can do this a few ways.
It is definitely best to use their own words as you reflect back to them, but to do so in a way that is a natural summary of what they’ve said.
For example, if a young person is telling you about a bad interaction they had with a friend and how they were really hurt by something they said, it would be appropriate to say, “Wow. I can see that you’re really going through a tough time right now. Sounds like your friend said some really hurtful things to you. Tell me more.”
It would, again, be unnatural and unsettling to say, “You’re hurt that your friend said that thing.” Instead, you can summarize what they’ve told you while still using their own words.
Reflect their thoughts. When you’re listening, you may pick up on different things that young people are telling themselves about what has happened in their lives. For example, they may say something along the lines of feeling like they don’t have what it takes to make it through college.
That is a thought. Not a feeling.
You can reflect this back by saying, “Wow, what’s it like to think you can’t make it through college?”
Sometimes when someone reflects a thought of ours, we realize how deeply painful that thought is and how much it actually might be weighing on us.
Reflect their feelings. Young people are overwhelmed. In fact, studies have shown that GenZ is the most anxious and stressed out generation ever, while other studies have shown that GenZ is incredibly lonely.
These are important feelings to note.
You can reflect these feelings by saying things like, “Wow, with all of that stuff going on, you sound really overwhelmed. Is that right?”
Reflections are powerful tools to help strengthen your connection with someone, and it helps someone feel truly and genuinely seen.
Validation is the fulfillment of understanding, saying not just “I hear you,” but going even further saying, “And you make sense.”
Validation is not the same thing as agreement, nor is it the same thing as affirmation. Validation does not say, “What you’re thinking and feeling is correct,” but rather it’s just saying, “I hear you, I understand you, and I’d feel the same way if I were in your shoes.”
Perhaps the better way to say all of this is that we can validate someone’s experience of a situation without necessarily affirming they’re seeing everything correctly. We are merely telling them that what they are experiencing is legitimate, that it makes sense, and that we love them in and through their experience.
I think of the 3 steps, validation is the one that is hardest because we so frequently want to jump to correction, and this is understandable. We want to teach someone that there may be another, better way to approach something.
But lasting correction without authentic connection is practically impossible.
When I try to correct my children from a place of disconnection, they only protest even more because now they are not just feeling distressed (which is why they act out), but they are feeling distressed and misunderstood.
It is only when I validate my child’s experience that they are able to reimagine the scenario with them acting differently.
Before we correct, we have to connect.
If our parishes, ministries, and families are going to place where true growth is possible, then they need to be places where people are seen.
We all come into this world looking for someone who is looking for us, and we will all continue to look for someone who is looking for us until the day we die.
The Church can be a place where this natural human longing is fulfilled, if only we will listen, reflect, and validate what people are going through.
This is how we are seen.
–By Christian Gonzalez
Christian Gonzalez is the Director of Ministry for OYM. He is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Arizona and draws from his understanding of family systems to explore questions of spiritual formation and the building up of the Church as the Household of God. OYM seeks to bring young people into this Household through Christian spiritual practices that help young people encounter Christ, embody His Church, and engage the world in His Name.