The spaces we create during our work with teens can have a tremendous impact on authentic engagement and the effectiveness of the relationship. Whether we’re considering physical or emotional spaces, the manner in which we structure these environments presents an important opportunity to communicate respect and set the tone for the work we do.
Here are some key items to keep in mind for creating environments of respect, within which we can effectively engage authentically with the teens with whom we work. These tips have been adapted from the book “What Works with Teens: A Professional’s Guide to Engaging Authentically with Adolescents to Achieve Lasting Change.”
Don’t demand eye contact.
Research suggests that when we’re trying to convince someone of something, we’re better off —and more persuasive—when we don’t require them to look us in the eye (Chen, Minson, Schöne, Heinrichs, 2013). It may seem counterintuitive; how can we know that teenagers are listening to us if they’re not looking at us? But the reality is that direct eye contact can be perceived as threatening, aggressive or confrontational.
If teens feel threatened by the way an adult addresses them, they will likely be defensive and in turn much less likely to keep an open mind. Keep in mind that we’re not only teaching with words but with behavior.
Communicating with force and aggression does not communicate respect. Moreover, the words are less likely to have an impact and by demonstrating ineffective communication, we miss an important opportunity to model better behavior.
Instead of demanding that a distracted or preoccupied student looks you in the eye, try letting him know that you’re aware that he likes to be in constant motion, but you’re worried that if he can’t focus on what you’re saying he won’t be able to follow your directions.
If he’s still unwilling or unable to make eye contact, ask him if he’d be willing to repeat what you’ve said so that you know he understands. Ask if he has any ideas about what might make it easier for him to be still when necessary. All of this can be done without demanding eye contact.
Make adjustments to seating arrangements.
Anything we can do to minimize the impact of the power imbalance directly contributes to a better relationship and the communication of respect. Seating arrangements offer a surprising number of opportunities to shift this dynamic.
Most of us do not have a great deal to work with when it comes to the spaces in which we do the bulk of our work with teens. In tight spaces, position your seat so it’s not directly facing the teen with whom you’re interacting. Sitting at an angle and facing her indirectly creates a more open space which allows her to feel less trapped or cornered.
Keep a clear path to the door, so that it won’t seem blocked if she should want to leave. Certainly having a teen flee the room during a session or meeting is not an ideal situation, but it’s preferable to her striking out in some way if she begins to feel trapped. Flight is typically preferable to fight!
Lots of counselor offices come equipped with big, comfortable chairs for the counselors and less desirable seating for the teens who visit. Teens may be less than enthusiastic about seeing a counselor to begin with, and that confirmation bias—the tendency to look for evidence of our beliefs and discount evidence that disproves them—will make them look for examples of disrespect, coercion, or imbalance of power.
Consider having chairs of equal comfort levels, or be willing to take the less comfortable chair. If selecting seating is not up to you, you can still find other ways to present some choice. Offer to rearrange the desks, for example, or sit on the floor.
Pay close attention to the way a teen responds to your physical presence. Teens are exquisitely sensitive to body language. Some will prefer to stand side by side when discussing issues, rather than a more direct, potentially threatening face-to-face interaction. Consider what you would have wanted as a teen in a similar circumstance.
Consider what your decor communicates about you.
Think about the last time you went to someone’s office—like a doctor, accountant, therapist, lawyer or other professional. If you walk in and see a room full of wood-framed furniture from the ‘70s that looks like it belongs in a college dorm room rather than a professional office, you might make judgments about that professional. In the same way, teens can make snap judgments about the helping adults in their lives that can be tough to reverse.
Teens are tuned in to their surroundings, just as we are as adults. Consider how the environment within which you work communicates respect. When you tend to the environment so that needs are anticipated and met, and the atmosphere is pleasant and amenable to the tasks at hand, you express value in your work and in turn, in the teens you serve.
Within the emotional and physical spaces we create, we have the power to foster a relationship that is built on respect. We do this through communication styles, expressions of boundaries, and physical environments. Beyond the physical, the way we structure our spaces creates an “emotional space” that can establish safeness, foster connection, and promote investment toward shared goals.
For more, check out “What Works with Teens: A Professional’s Guide to Engaging Authentically with Adolescents to Achieve Lasting Change.”