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Developing Brave Spaces for Dialogue in Youth Work

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Dialogue is a powerful way to help young people develop their voice. Dialogue is an agreement to listen and acknowledge without judgment. It helps us consider different viewpoints and develop empathy and understanding.

Young people need these social emotional skills to work through challenges with each other in positive, productive ways.

No matter what type of programming you do, you can develop brave spaces for healthy dialogue to happen.

What is Dialogue?

First, you need to know what dialogue is not:

  • It is not a discussion. The goal is not to reach a solution or decide a particular course of action.
  • It is not a debate. The goal is not to defend ourselves or convince anyone of anything.

Knowing what dialogue is not instantly reveals the real value of what healthy dialogue is:

  • Dialogue is focused on inquiry for the purpose of developing collective understanding.
  • True dialogue requires a safe, brave environment where young people can be vulnerable, share their thoughts, and listen to others.

Developing Brave Spaces

Brave spaces are essential to healthy dialogue. A great way to get started is by establishing ground rules or agreements for conversations and behavior.

You can define the space in many ways. No matter what, it’s important to:

  • Name your purpose and intention for gathering
  • Review agreements every time you gather
  • Set healthy, consistent boundaries
  • Check in with participants throughout the dialogue and integrate feedback in real time

By setting agreements in advance, everyone will be able to participate more effectively. Everyone will know what to expect. And be able to hold each other accountable so everyone grows.

Here are some example agreements you could use:

  • Practice empathy.
  • Focus on your own learning.
  • Be open to new ideas.
  • The goal is not to agree, it is to deepen understanding.
  • Speak from your own experience, use “I” statements.
  • Assume positive intent and acknowledge impact
  • Honor each other’s perspectives to create maximum space for difference.
  • Honor confidentiality.

Brave spaces give young people a chance to practice active listening. They learn to consider other viewpoints. And that builds positive relationships and understanding. Those skills help them work together to solve problems.

Role Modeling Healthy Dialogue

One of the best ways to help young people engage in dialogue with others in healthy ways is to role model it! As you role model you show your willingness to be uncomfortable with difficult topics. That’s a teachable moment.

A great place to start is to think about how you ask questions. Try asking questions that open space for ideas. You could say:

  • “I’m curious about what you said, would you be willing to say more about what that means to you?”
  • “Can you name a core value that drives your belief?”
  • “What assumptions made it easy for you to draw that conclusion?”

In addition to tough topics, there are times conflict arises. Conflict often bubbles up from the assumptions we make. So, we need to slow down and notice our assumptions. That helps us reframe conflict and make better decisions.

Exploring differing viewpoints and building trusting relationships is what youth work, and the human experience, is all about. By effectively navigating opportunities for dialogue, whether planned or spontaneous, you can create more equitable and brave program spaces with young people.

Want to learn more about how you can bring healthy dialogue to your youth work? YIPA has a great training to help you reflect and take action on your own path for Starting and Sustaining Equity and Antiracism Work.

Jade Schleif is the training coordinator of the Youth Intervention Programs Association (YIPA), a non-profit association of youth-serving organizations. We're your source for exceptional, affordable, personal and professional online learning via The Professional Youth Worker.  Join us! To ask Jade a question or share your feedback about this blog, email jade@yipa.org.