Part 1 is here. This post will explore qualities of effective leaders, expectations of leaders, barriers to functional groups, and what a “good” group looks like.
Qualities of Effective Leaders: First and foremost, it’s important to recognize that there is always always a power differential. As hard as we may work to make kids feel safe, we have to remember that it will take time to earn trust and build relationships, and the more we exert our authority or use it as a tool to manage the conversation and get our way, the harder it will be to build rapport. Trust is an outcome of honest conversation, not a prerequisite for it.
Second, we have to be willing and able to examine our own biases/habits/behaviors. Without judging or shaming or blaming, simply acknowledging our tendency to wield power or assume ill intent or use body language to express our disapproval or disagreement will help us as leaders and parents to think about how those things affect the atmosphere we are trying to create. The more we can do this, the more we are able to choose mindful responses and actions when we’re in tricky situations with adolescents, especially if we are uncomfortable.
Next, it’s vital that we remain accountable to the larger group or relationship. Getting defensive is not a path to relationship-building. Staying humble and curious and treating everyone as though their perspective is important and deserves air-time (even if we vehemently disagree) is key. When someone lets us know that they feel shut-down or disrespected or triggered, it is our responsibility as leaders to set aside our knee-jerk responses and dig in to really understand. Dismissing another person’s emotional response is a quick way to stifle connection.
Expectations for Leaders: Stay present. Letting past challenges or future worries invade the conversation, or dissociating because the topic isn’t compelling to you or it’s a difficult one to sit with derails the conversation.
Lead with curiosity. We have to be willing to give kids this age air-time, if only to give them practice speaking up about challenging issues. The more they feel listened to, the more they’re willing to engage.
Lead by example. Be honest about your own difficulties, show compassion for everyone in the room, listen carefully. (The one caveat I have here is that it is possible to share too much. Remember that this is about the kids, so while it is helpful for them to see us being human and vulnerable, oversharing can make it feel like a lecture or as if we are comparing our experiences to theirs. The goal is to help them understand that it’s ok to talk about hard things and that there are a range of perspectives that are all valid and important.)
Support and encourage everyone. Acknowledge how hard this work is and praise individuals for sitting with discomfort, for learning to be with it and not run away.
Barriers to Good Groups: Huge power differentials – there can’t be one or two people always driving the conversation or making the decisions.
Norms are habitual and largely unexamined. It’s important to really spend time looking at the expectations for any group through the lens of each participant.
Focusing on consensus or agreement. The goal of SEL is to learn to appreciate difference, see diverse opinions and perspectives as strengths, and encourage everyone to speak up. The tendency of adolescents is to ‘fit in’ and in many cases that means people-pleasing. It may be difficult, but it is vital to remind kids that the goal is not for everyone to conform.
Attributes of Good Groups: Effective groups have a balance of engagement of all voices. They are also self-aware and able to change when necessary – if there are behaviors that are preventing honest conversation such as bias or stereotypes, good groups are willing to stop and address those underlying issues. Groups that are doing the hard work are able to look at systems/policies/norms that are unproductive and center folks whose needs aren’t being served.
Good groups also lead with curiosity and prioritize learning and understanding. They know that their purpose is to get messy and really open up, not necessarily to come to some larger “conclusion.”
All of these things are a work in progress. There is no group/classroom/family that will start out with all of these qualities and hit the ground running. As I wrote in Part One, the important thing is that you begin, and that you are willing to stay curious and make adjustments as you go, thanks to feedback from anyone in the group.
I’d love to hear your comments or questions!