All of us that work with teenagers have a difficult task. How do we sort through the noise of adolescent life and glean the important information students are trying to tell us so that we can be a helpful adult in their life? Of course, there is no perfect answer but as I have worked with teenagers for over a decade, some things have stood out as effective listening strategies. Teen Lifeline even uses more than 10% of the time in our 1-day Facilitator Training to talk about how to listen better.


To set this up, you will need to set aside some assumptions. First, as adults we have to believe that we do not have all the answers. This requires a daily reminder for most of us and for some like me, multiple times a day. I tend to think the life experience I have equals relevant information for the kids in my house or the students I work with. The problem here is there are too many details missing for us to make that big of an assumption. This is not to say that there is no value to our experience, that is a big part of what we rely on to learn from. I do believe it is true though that our experience is not the most important factor but instead how we handled that experience. That said, we must be willing and able to hear what a particular student is going through (really hear it) before we can realize the most important lesson we can share from what we have learned and model for them the “how” of handling things rather then the “what to do” in a particular situation.


Once we have our mindset in the right place, we can move forward with developing our listening skills.

1. Don’t be afraid to admit you missed something. As humans, our brains are constantly processing what is coming our way. This includes engagement in conversation with anyone. The difficulty is that it is hard to stop this process from happening since we are wired that way. Since this is true, it is completely appropriate to admit your brain was thinking about something else and you need the person to repeat what they just said so you can make sure you are catching what they are sharing with you.

2. Intentionally pause 15 seconds once the person stops talking. The key here is to do this intentionally, allowing time for the person to be done with their thought. In addition you can use this time to form a response either to summarize what you heard, ask for clarification or offer advice. If you are intentional about this, you are less likely to fall prey to number 1 above.

3. Limit your comments. This takes a lot of practice because we all want to believe that what we think is valuable. However, it is important to realize that it is only valuable if the people you are sharing it with see it that way. If you decide going into a conversation you are only going to speak things related to the conversation, it will help you listen more intently and offer more helpful, relevant questions and thoughts.

4. Pay attention to what matters, not every word they say. If you have worked with teenagers for longer then 6 weeks, you know that not everything they say is important or helpful to knowing what is really going on. That said, we have to work hard to listen carefully and catch the pieces that are most important to focus on those. Once you practice this a few times, it gets easier and you will find you’re able to listen for words, phrases, inflection or even pace of speech that tips you off to what is important.

5. If you can’t listen now, ask the person to wait. As adolescents, and this applies to younger kids too, there is a tendency to just jump in and start talking whether the person is listening or not. At our house, my wife has started handling this very effectively. She will say “I really want to listen to you because you are important, but I can’t right now. Give me a few minutes, and I will focus on what you want to tell me.” Yea, she is pretty good at this stuff!

So now it’s up to you to decide. Is this helpful? Does it bring up thoughts or questions you want to share? Comment below or reach out to us on social media or by email. We want to keep growing, and we hope you do too. If you did find this helpful, take a minute to forward the email, post it online or tell a friend – you don’t even have to give us credit (though we are okay if you do :). 

Ricky Lewis is our Executive Director and has been with us since the beginning. As a father of 4, he seeks to help parents and their kids Live Life Better.