7 rules for speaking with the youth

March 23, 2021 08:01
Photo: youth.gov.hk

How does one speak with the youth?

Time after time, I’ve had this question put to me by folks – ranging from senior executives to political veterans, from leading community leaders to established academics. Yet in particular, in a city as polarised and divided as Hong Kong, it becomes all the more important that dialogue and conversations – frank, unreserved, and as purged of bias as possible – are held between different political camps, across generations. Conversations act as a means of bridging, hopefully not exacerbating, differences.

Half tongue-in-cheek, half on a serious note, I’ve resolved to put together a list of thoughts and advice on one of the few areas in which I could claim authority. So here are seven hopefully helpful thoughts and tips on how to speak with the youth – coming from one:

1) Show humility through revealing one’s vulnerability. Humans are inclined to trust those who show that they have nothing to hide. Strangers, in particular, are more likely to trust someone who is forthcoming, who signals (or demonstrates) their honesty and candour. Given the stereotypes concerning knowledge, experience, and the trenchant power structures underpinning adult-youth conversations (which often tilts the relationship in natural gravitation towards the former), the only way to cut through the silos is if you opt for, as the ‘adult in the room’, something that surprises your listener. There are few better ways in doing so than showing your vulnerability – highlight the limits to your knowledge; expose one of your deepest fears; explain why you’re reluctant to engage at large, and your worries concerning speaking with the youth. Acknowledge that what you know may not be perfect. Hold your palms wide open – and let the youth see that you mean it when you say, “I’m listening”.

2) Listen – don’t preach. You’re not here to lecture, you’re here to listen. There is a temptation, all the more understandable given narrative is oft-propagated about the youth, to see the youth as impetuous, zealous individuals with no self-restraint. The popular narrative is that they are here to learn, and you are here to lecture. Yet a unidirectional mode of instruction cannot and does not build trust – nor does it facilitate bilateral exchange and discussion. If you refuse to treat your conversational partner as being entitled to the modicum of respect you would show others in virtue of their being your peers, how could you expect the same of the youth? Hence irrespective of where you stand, where you disagree, or where you find the youth lacking – the first and foremost step is to listen.

3) Let them speak till they don’t. Try, for starters, to defer for once, if you’re not used to doing so. This somewhat follows intuitively from 2) – but trust me, many a youth have found themselves put off by the soliloquacious rant that the stereotypical ‘elder’ (especially in Confucian cultures) rather enjoys partaking in. Of course, in conversations, one must give and take, and both parties must respect one another – to reiterate this would be futile. Yet long-winded folks are unlikely to be persuasive, and this, in turn, renders them unlikely to be listened to – if you want the youth to listen, let them have a go in steering the conversation. There is no harm in waiting it out, especially when emotions are charged and hostilities run rampant. There is every opportunity – once they’re finished – for you to offer calibrated, measured responses.

4) Speak their language, hear their language, and think in their language. Try see where they’re coming from – and by that, I mean, consciously suspend your beliefs, biases, and commitments as much as possible. Generations may well differ on pivotal issues – take Hong Kong, for instance, where many amongst the youth and their parents have found themselves at loggerheads over the past two years of events. This does not imply, however, that there can be no common ground – or that common ground cannot be forged through a suspension of one’s strong-willed sentiments and opinions. I posit that common ground can only be effectively established, when both parties try to appreciate the rationale, motivations, and beliefs undergirding the other side – this requires you to think in the other’s shoes, but also through the lenses and idiosyncrasies of the other side. Understanding teenagers and young adults is no mean feat – but we could at least give it a try.

5) Take the leap of faith. As per 4), as a general rule of thumb, one should opt to believe that the other side is engaging in good faith – until strong, distinct countervailing evidence emerges. As for conversing with the youth, bear in mind that they are rarely genuinely malevolent. Indeed, nor are they dispositionally (in 99%) rigged to oppose anything and all that you have to say. They could well vociferously protest at your initial words and response – yet in response to this, you should not treat them as any different from an esteemed, senior colleague registering their discontents towards your stance. In any case, it would be rather bizarre if someone whom you visibly deem and judge as acting in bad faith or under blatantly mistaken assumptions, would see value in positively conversing with you. It’s Sociology 101, really (and the patronising tone here, for one, shouldn’t be replicated).

6) Don’t infantalise the youth. The youth aren’t infants. They aren’t a rare species that can only be comprehended through protracted, laborious training and study (at least, most don’t require such an undertaking). Bilateral trust and openness can only be fostered, if the ‘other party’ sees that their agency, convictions, and principles are respected – as opposed to dismissed. You may think of yourself very, very highly. That’s all fair and square, but for the fact that glowing self-esteem and self-appraisal alone do not make for effective communication. If you treat youth as if they were young, ignorant children, they would act accordingly.

7) Practice makes perfect. It sounds almost cliched, at this point – but it’s true. You can’t possibly understand the youth without talking to them. Now, one may object, surely, they’d be unwilling to talk to you unless you’ve got at least some practice. It appears, then, that we’d be in a catch-22. But we all know that this excuse doesn’t hold water. Talk to the folks who are protesting; speak with – not to – those who are rallying; engage those whom you view with suspicion.

The youth don’t bite, I assure you.

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Assistant Professor, HKU