Teen Programming and the Art of Active Listening

For my first adulting session, I wanted to focus on a basic skill that (if successful) would improve the daily interactions of our teen patrons and staff alike: communication. It is one of the greatest challenges to overcome when working with teens. In all fairness, achieving effective communication can be a struggle for adults, so expecting things to go differently for teens feels unrealistic to me. That’s not to say it isn’t exasperating at times, but it shouldn’t be surprising. Right?

skeletorExcept, it is. Every person who works with teens has experienced this moment where they just want to scream. I can’t tell you how many times I have come up against this wall where I am working with teen patrons or volunteers and the break in communication causes a conflict of interests. It’s disheartening and frustrating. It brings me really close to ripping off my cardigan like the Incredible Hulk in a fit of librarian-chic rage.

Except, I can’t. I won’t. First of all, I lack the upper body strength to actually pull that off. Secondly, I know there has got to be this magic way to speak teen more fluently. When I reflect back on conversational hiccups,  usually both parties share some blame for the breakdown, because effective communication isn’t this one-size fits all script to follow. Instead, it is an ever-present, organic event that changes on a dime. It’s just messy and hard and takes a boatload of practice. I also know that teens are acutely aware of their own need to become better communicators, so I try really hard to remember that they are just as confused by these verbal landmines as I am.

The Breakdown

I mentioned in my previous post that I polled my teens and staff for insight. Here’s what I heard:

Teen Feels:

  • They feel misunderstood.
  • They don’t know where things went wrong but want to.
  • They feel intimidated.

Adult Feels:

  • Teens aren’t listening.
  • They aren’t actively working towards the same goals we are.
  • Teens are intimidating.

Let me give you an example that one of my teens mentioned:

She’s playing on her phone and her parent asks her to do the dishes. Without looking up, she says, “Fine, I’ll do them”. The parent is annoyed and takes it as a) she isn’t listening, and b) then elevates things from conversation to conflict.

For us, this seems really obvious that the parent was put-off, because she didn’t look up from her phone and the tone she used sent a signal that she was insincere or disinterested. For the teen, she was completely confused. In her mind, she said she would do it, so why is her parent mad? I thought about what makes me different from teens. What things have I worked on to make me better (not perfect) at communication? What habits do I have that they might not? 

  • I have more experience listening as a singular action than teens do. I listen to podcasts, audiobooks, NPR, and most importantly, people. I’m older that these teens and had a different adolescence than they did. I grew up without a smartphone. I have hours of experience of just listening and talking, both on a phone and face to face.
  • I use body language as a part of my communication skill set. Before I was a librarian, I spent years in the service industry. You learn really quickly that your posture and tone play a huge part in soothing an upset customer. It isn’t what you say, but how.
  • I’ve been on both sides of things. My ability to empathize in situations has a lot to do with perspective. I’ve been both the annoyed adult AND the teen.

What everything boils down to is a lack of experience. But who will undertake this task?!

The Fix

Short disclaimer here, I’m not an expert with a PhD in linguistics, or psychology, or anything else, but I do believe that librarians have a particular skill set that makes them well suited for helping teens hone in on soft skills needed to succeed because:

  • We care.
  • We are excellent listeners, teachers, and communicators.
  • Our research skills are on point. What we don’t know now, we will shortly.
  • We are masters of the “reference interview”.

It is literally our job to rise to an unknown challenge and provide assistance on the fly. We do this constantly. It is how we tackle every reference question we have ever answered. We listen to what a patron is saying, not on a surface level, but carefully and intuitively. We take the time to acknowledge that we hear them and confirm that what we hear is what they mean, even if it isn’t exactly what was said. This is active listening. This is effective communication and we crush at it.

It’s a natural transition for us to take what we do every day for patrons and use it as a tool to breakthrough to teens and teach them how to do the same. But how do we do this without boring them?

The Inspiration

I’ve always enjoyed listening to the StoryCorps segments on NPR, which if you have never heard of it, are these short audio interviews that are produced by the Library of Congress. They can be best described as a tiny moment in time, preserved. They can be simple interactions between people, or an intense record of a monumental event. It’s rad, and I thought it was something teens would like to learn about and participate in. They consistently want a voice and are always looking for opportunities to connect with others and share their experiences. The goal now is to take what StoryCorps does and break it down into a bite-sized exercise that teens could work on at our session or independently afterwards.

The Program

My library system hosts quarterly, system-wide programs for teens, so as a tie-in I proposed that we could have a competition where teens could produce and share a short (3-5 minute) audio or visual segment and try to win cash prizes. The competition details can be found here.

In our adulting session the plan was to:

  • Discuss the importance of active listening and positive communication as a necessary soft skill
  • Explain how the creative process of sharing stories ties into learning effective communication
  • Talk about our Story Share competition
  • Show them StoryCorps as a concrete example of how others have shared their own experiences
  • Provide resources on how to create scripts or screen plays and talk about selecting and building a story they would like to share

How Things Went

For program attendance, I ended up with about 15 middle and high school students. After a quick rundown of the agenda, we began to listen to a brief segment from StoryCorps. It was at that moment that things started to go down in flames. Yup. Sometimes how you think things will go, is not how it unfolds at all. The teens instantly zoned out. The light went out of their eyes like a cinematic blackout.


Obviously, it was time to switch tactics. I stopped the program, flipped on the lights, and was very honest with them. I could tell they weren’t feeling it, and that’s totally OK. Now, tell me why. I stressed that this was a program for them. If it isn’t working, I want to fix it. The response: it felt weird to just listen without anything to look at, but they did want to know what the story was about.

I then offered to tell them what the audio clip was about. They were very responsive to this, and after I told them the backstory we went back and listened again. The story I chose was about two men, Rickey Jackson and Eddie Vernon, whose history was tied together because of an event that occurred when Rickey was 18 and Eddie was 12, which lead to the false imprisonment of Rickey. This felt like a perfect story that highlighted two things: words have power, and so do teens. It also shows that it is never to early or late to take ownership of one’s voice or actions.

After that, we talked a lot. We practiced communication by having an open discussion, with me moderating and dropping pointers along the way. I stressed the need to take turns and actively listen to one another. We addressed the challenges that Rickey and Eddie faced at the time, and how it is easy for teens to find themselves in situations they are truly unprepared for. We talked about the importance of slowing down to thinking things through when one is faced with a challenge and knowing when to seek out and listen to one’s support network when the issue is too big to handle alone. We talked about conflict resolution, and how Rickey and Eddie took the time to empathize with and listen to each other to come to a healthier and happier place. We tackled ways in which teens can do this in their everyday lives, which is where the “dishes story” came from.

We also talked about other ways teens can use their voice, and how young people are actively starting businesses and harnessing technology to make names for themselves well before they are an “adult”. This lead to an awesome conversation about the YouTuber vlogger, Logan Paul. The teens talked about their discomfort and upset at how he carried himself. They expressed genuine concern over how these vloggers are often considered the “millennial voice”, i.e. theirs. They wanted better representation. I asked them why they were waiting for someone else to speak for them, when they can tell their stories now? Why not use our Story Share competition to practice using your voice in a safe and positive way? We then spent the rest of our time swapping simple stories about ourselves and brainstorming ideas they could use for the competition.

Mission: Accomplished.

Final Thoughts

Even though the program didn’t go exactly as planned, I feel really satisfied with the outcome. My main objective with these sessions is to provide the teens with experiences that will give them confidence and help them grow. I spoke with a some of the teens who were there afterwards, and the feedback was positive. They were appreciative that I was willing to change the format, because it made more sense to them and treated them as equals participants. They liked that this was something we did together, instead of something that was just thrown at them. They also felt that the most valuable take-away came from the pointers for how they could better communicate with their caregivers and peers.

One more thing before I go. Working with teens can be challenging, but I hope this post helps those out there to know that setbacks and shakeups are ok, that small impacts can still be rewarding, and that even when it feels like they might not hear you, teens are listening.

I’m always looking for ways to improve and share, so I love hearing from all of you. Thank you for reading and please comment any feedback below!

Owls & Vowels.

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