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/ 10 February 2017

The power of sideways listening

Father and son playing computer game together to help with sideways listening

Recently, an article in the Guardian described sideways listening. This is a way of spending time with children and young people and providing them with space to talk if they want to. The idea is that, without the pressure of looking someone in the eye, it’s easier for children and young people to drop things into the conversation. The writer of the article noticed it when ferrying her children from home to club to school to home again. Sitting side by side in car was a perfect opportunity for this sideways conversation.

This is not a new thing – parents and carers have been having deeper car conversations with their children and teenagers for years. And as children’s and youth workers, we’ve been doing a similar thing. The activities that we do often involve sitting next to a child or young person, rather than facing them, as we bake, do craft, watch sport or play FIFA.

However, sometimes we forget about this valuable opportunity, so here are a few of pointers on how to have these sideways conversations in a way that helps to build relationships and gives the chance for children and young people to talk about the bigger things of life and faith.

Do side-by-side stuff

This seems obvious, but if all your work is up-front presentational style, then you’re missing out. Be intentional about scheduling in times when leaders and children/young people can sit alongside each other. Whatever the aim of your sessions (intentionally spiritual, relationship-building, outreach etc.), these side-by-side activities can provide opportunities that children and young people don’t get elsewhere. This could be craft, board games, playing on games consoles, baking, bingo… the list is long!

Remember that the activity is a means rather than an end

Often, when doing something like a craft, we can get caught in the need to finish and for every child to go home with something. When playing FIFA, our competitive streak might cause us to focus on beating the young person 10-0. But, to facilitate these side-by-side conversations, we need to let go of completing/winning any activity, and chat. This may mean that we don’t finish a craft or bake, but that’s OK. It may mean that we lose badly to the young person, but that’s OK. (Really it is.)

Don’t take over the conversation

Remember the conversations are about them and not you. You may have had similar experiences to the ones the child of young person is talking about, but your job is not immediately to try and solve the issue, it’s to listen. If you immediately jump in with ‘This happened to me’, then you shut down the young person and almost belittle their problem. There will be a chance to say ‘I know how you feel’ and give help and advice, but it might not be straight away. Give the child space to talk.

Don’t be disappointed if they don’t talk

Not every activity will result in a deep and meaningful conversation. Parents and carers know that, for every car conversation they have, there are several journeys that are only made up of grunts and ‘All right’s. And that’s OK. There are many reasons why children and young people might feel like talking. Just keep providing those activities and making yourself available. Just don’t always beat them at FIFA, or they won’t want to play you…

Alex Taylor is part of the Diocese’s children and youth team, and is terrible at FIFA.

About Alex Taylor

Alex Taylor is part of the children's and youth team at the Diocese of London. He is an experienced children's and youth worker and writer.

Read more from Alex Taylor

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