One of my earliest memories is sashaying up to a stranger outside a department store, and attempting to tell her to stop smoking because “she would die” if she didn’t take care of herself. Despite my good intentions, the woman was understandably irritated, and my mom dragged me away, apologizing profusely to the woman.
I was three.
Needless to say, I don’t think I’ve ever been shy–even at a young age.
In all my years of dealing with people in various jobs–as a theme park ride attendant, a balloon salesman, a resident assistant, a barista and a Director of Christian Education, just to name a few–I’ve had the opportunity to interact with thousands of shy people. My experiences in talking to strangers has given me an insight into communication that I greatly value, and love to share with others who don’t feel so comfortable with easily talking to others.
Many youth leaders are fearless communicators, who will talk the ear off of anyone who will listen to them. But there are plenty of us out there in the trenches of youth ministry who aren’t so confident about what to say to the people around us. Maybe we aren’t sure about what topics are “safe” topics, or we don’t feel confident in our ability to carry on small talk–or perhaps we just don’t really like talking so much, and we prefer to listen.
Whatever your personality may be, you’re still a blessed child of the Almighty Creator, who “knit you together in your mother’s womb” and designed you with your own unique personality, gifts and talents (Psalm 139:13).
Whether you’re delighted to talk to strangers in a restaurant or you’d rather curl up with a book and slip into a world of solitude, you’re still a beloved child of God and you still have an important role to play in the Great Commission to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). 
That being said, the world of youth ministry requires a certain level of verbal interaction in order to effectively reach our teens…whether you’re bold or shy, a talker or a listener.
So how do you best leverage your communication to engage with middle schoolers? Here are some of the things I’ve learned work best with dealing with young teenagers–especially the shy ones:
Ask Open-Ended Questions
 This sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s a valuable tool to use when dealing with teenagers. Really, anything that isn’t a yes-or-no question will engage kids immediately. One of the easiest lines of questions you can ask a youth is open-ended questions about themselves, such as “So who are you?” or “How are you enjoying school?” or “What’s your favorite memory of your childhood?” or “What’s your favorite food, and why?”
Middle schoolers are still learning the ropes of communication themselves, and are generally stuck in a rut of self-absorption already. The easiest thing for them to talk about, in most situations, is themselves. And frankly, we live in a world where people don’t ask a lot about each other even though everyone is looking for someone to be interested in them personally. Think of how teenagers dress, as an example–a lot of them are dying to be noticed by someone. If you can recognize this deep desire to be accepted and, through conversation and personal questions, give them a sense that you’re accepting them–they’ll adore you.
Show Genuine Interest
 Teenagers are like little piranhas when it comes to sniffing out authenticity. In other words–don’t fake it! Strive to be genuine in everything you say and do, and they’ll appreciate that more than anything. Trust me, they’ll be able to tell if you’re faking an interest in what they’re saying…so be truthful in your interest about communicating with them. Everyone has something to say, and they want to know that the person they’re speaking with values their words.
You can show your interest by maintaining direct eye contact (as tempting as it might be to check your phone or watch, especially with the ramblers!), nodding and giving verbally affirming statements as you listen and asking questions about what they’re saying as they talk. A little interest goes a long, long way with middle school kids.
Talk About Their World–Not Yours
 When I was a teenager, one of the most irritating traits about adults was that they so often talked about their world and not mine. They’d tell stories and jokes about their teenage years, and I always felt that their concern with their own lives was selfish. That may sound harsh, but it’s exactly what I’ve heard echoed from countless teens I’ve worked with over the last few years.
Yes, our own stories and experiences can be valuable in the right context. I’m not saying you can’t ever share your life or your knowledge with your students. But if your stories start to dominate the conversation, teens will shut down faster than a candy aisle sale after Easter. Seek to engage them, and in general, wait to talk about yourself until they ask you about yourself–if nothing else, this is your unselfish testimony to how much you actually care about them.
Don’t Be Afraid to Talk About the “Tough Topics”
 We sometimes fall into the trap of assuming teenagers don’t want to talk about challenging or difficult topics like faith, love, politics, social expectations, conflict or countless other subjects. Society tells us that teenagers are consumed with thoughts about sex, rebellion and identity–which is true. That, however, is not all our students are thinking about. We have the honor of helping our youth navigate through a plethora of tough topics they’re thinking about, whether it be how to truly forgive a friend who’s hurt them or how to handle a homosexual classmate…so don’t be afraid to dive in and talk about these challenging subjects.
Ultimately, the best way to communicate with our shy students–and the adults around us, too–is to simply share the hope and love within us that comes from being filled with the Holy Spirit.
As Jesus Himself said in John 15:9, 11: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love…. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”
 And whether you’re a pesky, talkative three year old or a quiet, reserved teenager–that’s a Truth we can all appreciate.
Published March 2013