The Source for Parents


Which Listener Are You?

An article from Jonathan McKee at

Dynamic ImageTwo teenagers each sit down in front of an adult in two totally separate venues. In each situation an adult asks questions and the teenager responds.

In one of these situations the teenager is freed to express himself and literally can’t stop talking.

In the other situation the teenager clams up immediately.

What’s the difference?

Maybe you’ve experienced this. You’re trying to engage a teenager in conversation, but he or she immediately puts up a wall and you feel like you are prying answers from the kid.

Let me introduce you to the two types of listeners: the parole officer and the counselor. One asks questions in search for a violation, the other listens to understand.

First, I apologize to all parole officers for the stigma. I’m sure there are some great parole officers out there who really care, but I simply use the example because most people are not excited about sitting down in front of an individual who is not only going to ask them questions from a position of authority, but also has the ability to use the provided information against them! It’s a one-up relationship and in most situations, the parolee isn’t very excited to be questioned in the first place.

Questions can be great tools to engage young people, but not when you ask them like a parole officer in search of a violation.

    “Where were you last night?”

    “Was that boy Chris with you?”

These questions aren’t asked with the intent to get to know your kid; they are being asked to gather incriminating evidence. As soon as the poor kid answers something wrong you’ll exclaim, “Aha! I knew it!”

Similarly, some people ask nagging questions.

    Did you turn in your permission slip?

    Did you finish the lawns?

    Did you feed Wolfgang?

Don’t ask questions like a person looking for malfeasance.

Don’t ask questions like someone who actually
uses the word “malfeasance!”

Instead, ask question like…

Counselors bill as much as $300 per hour.

What is so special about what they do?

They listen without judgment. They sit in a chair for an hour, talking a little, listening a lot… and people pay them big bucks to do so.


People want to be heard. People want to be understood. People want someone who is willing to put all of their other interests aside and focus 100% of their attention on them, without distraction.

Most people have to pay for this.

Funny, in the beginning of my book, Get Your Teenager Talking, I provide a handful of pointers about how to engage young people in conversation. In those first few pages I recommend a skill rarely used by parents.

The skill is this: notice.

Counselors notice. They notice body language, tone and word choice. One reason they are able to do this is because they are actually paying attention. They aren’t doing bills or putting away groceries while casually asking, “How was your day?”

When’s the last time you stopped and noticed your son or daughter. What are they wearing? Why did they dress that way today? What are they looking forward to more than anything that day? What are they loathing? What helps them numb the pain? Who can they share that pain with?

Do you know the answers to these questions?

If you want to get to know your kid like this, you have to learn to approach them like someone who wants to get to know them… not someone looking for malfeasance.

Which listener are you?


Jonathan McKee Jonathan McKee is the author of over a dozen books including the brand new More Than Just the Talk, Sex Matters, The Guy's Guide to God, Girls and the Phone in Your Pocket, The Zombie Apocalypse Survival Guide for Teenager, and youth ministry books like Ministry By Teenagers, Connect: Real Relationships in a World of Isolation, and the 10-Minute Talks series. He has over 20 years youth ministry experience and speaks to parents and leaders worldwide, all while providing free resources for youth workers and parents on his websites, and You can follow Jonathan on his blog, getting a regular dose of youth culture and parenting help. Jonathan and his wife Lori, and their three kids Alec, Alyssa and Ashley live in California.

Rate This Article!
*Email:  What is Gravatar?  

Comments on this post

   dan manns         5/1/2014 9:55:59 AM

i really enjoyed reading this article Jon. thank you! being a good listener is an art form. have you ever had a conversation with someone and just let them talk through their problems with you and at the end of the conversation they say, "thank you, you've really helped me a lot"? And you think to yourself, "well all i really did was listen." words to live by: james 1:19 - be quick to hear and slow to speak.

   Ian         5/1/2014 4:13:26 AM

Hey Jonnie, I have just read the article and i am very thankful for the work.My girl friend has always told me to be a better listener, and that it will do the work we are doing with the kids better.Reading your article confirms the truthfulness in the power of listening, most especially for us who are working and living with young men and women.Great work my brother.Ian

   Belinda         4/28/2014 4:36:25 PM

This is really helpful. I hope I'm not that nagging example! Gulp!



Youth Culture Window

Parenting Workshops

Jonathan In Person

© 1999-2014 The Source for Youth Ministries           Site Disclaimer