As youth workers, we’re often doers. We want to change lives, impact young people, help them make the right choices. Our hands are itching to act, to do. But what if not doing anything is better? What if ‘just’ listening is what we need to do?
Rebecca Hamer is youth worker in Harrow, a borough of London. This is her story.
“Harrow is the fourth most ethnically diverse borough in London. There’s a huge cultural diversity. For me, it’s an exciting place to live and to work. The people are very warm, hospitable. I love it. It’s also a very mixed area where deprivation and affluence co-exist, where there are some gang issues and drug and alcohol problems. Basically it’s just normal young people wrestling with life, with this world.”
“I’m involved in the SPACE-project, a listening service for young women. Girls can just come in and talk. We use the Acorn Christian model for reflective listening which is about listening without waiting to speak and without interpreting. We take the time to listen, to just be with someone in what they’re saying. Something we listen particularly for are ‘feeling words’ that describe how they are feeling. We reflect these back and try to summarize what they are saying in their own feeling words.”
“We try to avoid giving advice. At the end of a conversation we just ask three specific questions which help the person move on in their thinking. Most of the time the process of talking has been enough for the young women to hear themselves and find their own way through their issue or problem. We help them order the jigsaw puzzle so to speak.”
“The fact that they figure it out themselves is a source of pride for these girls. We empower them by just listening to them, but ultimately they do it themselves with their own resources. They’re proud of that. It boosts their self-esteem, which is also the intended outcome of the listening service.”
“The listening model is very loving. It doesn’t impose anything, there’s no action. It’s real empowerment. Everything around us is so noisy all the time that being with your own feelings can really be a shock. It’s also a relief for them to be able to say out loud what is bothering them. It’s therapeutic. But our aim is to deal with the present, not the past. If we sense someone needs to talk about the past, we refer to a counselor.”
“At first it was hard for me to not say anything, because I really wanted to help and I felt I wasn’t helping at all. But I’ve found that offering comfort or a solution often interrupts the process, rather than helping it. It deflects from the real answers. I’ve realized listening is not passive, you’re supporting the other person in being active. The only time we do offer advice is when the conclusions they draw aren’t helpful.”
“Low self-esteem really is a root problem for young women that can cause many other problems, like teen pregnancy, smoking, or excessive drinking. There are so many benefits of having a self-image that’s grounded in reality: women could dress differently, choose a desired career, wait for the right boyfriend, etc. If they are able to see themselves in realistic terms it will help them create a vision for the future, imagine a new landscape for themselves. If we influence them at this stage from the truth of who they are, we can positively influence this generation’s process of dreaming about the future. That’s why we’ve started a pilot group for a special self-esteem project complementary to the listening service.”
“In the listening service, there’s no initial talk about God or faith, even though it’s run by a local Christian charity. The girls that come in are in a very vulnerable position and we don’t want to abuse that. But Jesus is always present in each conversation, and all the volunteers are from local churches. (CUT) After about three or four sessions we offer to pray for them, again using their own words. The primary aim is not conversion, but God is there nonetheless. Those that are interested in discovering faith and exploring their spiritual identity, we signpost to various Christian outreach events and groups.”
“I draw some inspiration from two stories from the Bible. When Elijah was facing the Baal priests on Mount Carmel, he had to rebuild the altar first before God could come down with His fire. I feel that young people often need to rebuild their lives first as well. I also think of Jesus when He healed the ten lepers. He didn’t talk about God or anything with them, He just healed them. One of them came back and asked him who he was. If the young women we love and heal and serve want to come back, than that’s the work of the Holy Spirit. It’s not something we have somehow forced.”