Culture | Leadership | Outreach | Volunteers
Justin Douglas

During my time in youth ministry I have had the privilege of meeting many students. I know there are many wiser than me at getting to know students and building relationships with students. Yet, I believe there are some things that have guided me and helped me successfully make students feel comfortable and cared for. I admit I fail at this, but that is part of it, we learn from our mistakes. Hopefully this post will help you as you interact with students, or even adults for that matter, as you attempt to build relationships.

First thing I need to clarify before we start: There is no perfect formula. I am simply letting you know what has worked for me; if it doesn’t work for you, then that is fine. Feel free to disagree with me or to add different things. I am not saying these steps are like an equation that always leads to a great trusting relationship with a student. There is no silver bullet, these are just tools I have noticed that aid me in reaching students.

Be Yourself.
If you are a parent to a teenager, or have been around teenagers for any length of time, then you know their crap detectors are some of the best out there. If you are faking, they know. Therefore, if you shop at JCPenny and wear khakis and a collared shirt with dress shoes everywhere you go, don’t change that.  PLEASE, do not go to Zumiez and buy a Zoo York shirt and skate shoes to impress the kids (If you don’t know what Zumiez is that is totally fine). Students want to know you care. They are craving an adult that is interested in building a relationship with them, even if they don’t act like that on the exterior. Just be yourself and let the students even make fun of you for the way you dress or whatever differences you may have. You being yourself is the biggest ‘in’ you have with a student, because you being yourself is genuine and it opens the line of communication for a genuine and trusting relationship.

Get a Name…and Remember it.
A students name is their identity.  Our sons name is Beckett and he is just a little over a year old and I can remember when he started turning his head when we would say his name. “Beckett” and he would respond with his attention changed and directed toward us. You need to know the name. Sometimes in the middle of a conversation I am missing bits and pieces of a story because I am saying the name over and over in my head. I do this because I want to remember the name. Obviously you need to create a system for remembering the name after you have disengaged from the conversation, whether that be a note you create in your cellphone or just a mental reminder system that you can recall. We will revisit this again in step seven.

Shake, High-Five, Awkward Side Hug, Etc.
The power of touch is something that we sometimes avoid because of how awkward it may be at times.  But greeting a new student with a high five is something that creates a hello experience different from other hellos. A high five greeting sets the tone for the energy of the conversation immediately and helps most students feel more comfortable and relaxed.

Do something unique.
It is important that you ‘Be yourself’ (Step 1) while you do something unique.  I have been fascinated by card tricks ever since I can remember. So I decided that I would go on YouTube and learn some card tricks, not to impress students, but because I really thought they were super cool and wanted to learn how to do some of them. I found this to be a unique experience I can have with a student when I meet them for the first time. I can show them a card trick and make them laugh or go “Wow.” What is unique about you that might create a connection with a student? Also, I don’t always walk around with a deck of cards doing the same unique thing with all new students I meet, that would be very formulaic and calculated, and then it would lose uniqueness overtime. There are certain students in our youth group that I have secret handshakes with. I consider the handshake a unique thing that creates a bond between me and that particular student. I think there is room for this unique thing to be something that is corporately shared in a small group setting. I was guest speaking at a youth group once and attended one of the small groups after my teaching. The leader greeted every student at the door with their small groups secret handshake. The new students were initiated into the small group by learning the handshake and I was as well. I thought this was an awesome way of creating a unique experience in a broader context.

Invite and Include.
Invite: “So Rachel, did Morgan tell you about the concert coming up?”  Now, you want to be very careful with this because the goal is not to sell a program or event, but instead the goal is to connect the student and make them feel comfortable attending an event.  You don’t know how many times a student has been attending our Youth Group for a few weeks and asks “Can I go to that?” As if it is some exclusive event only for those who have been attending for a long time or something. So this helps break that down right away, letting them know they are invited to everything.

Include: For many of us we meet students at the front door when they walk into our program for the first time, but some times we meet them in different contexts that give us little time to have a full conversation. We may meet students when we break up for small groups or when we are split into teams for game time.  In these encounters we are sometimes limited in our ability to get through all the steps of a typical one on one encounter because we have many other students around us and we have a task, game, or lesson to complete. Your primary goal in these situations is still getting their name and remembering it, but it gravitates to making sure this new student feels included. For example, it is game time and you are declared a team captain. Then teams are being split and you have five students on your team, one of which you have never met.  Get that students name, have as much of a conversation as possible, but then make it your mission to get them fully involved.  Those of you who are competitive leaders who want to win every game, the goal here is to get them involved, that is the win.

Shared Experience.
I was hesitant to add this to the list because sometimes you have no control over shared experiences, and it is somewhat like ‘Step 4.’  So many of the students I have met over the years begin our conversations with, “Remember the time…”  This is because we had an experience together that connects and binds our relationship.  Sometimes these are very small events like remember that time we owned everyone in dodgeball or they are remembering back on their first youth group trip where we went camping and got rained out and had to get a hotel for the weekend (unfortunately that was a real experience). I will be honest, there are few ways to calculate or control shared experiences, but if they happen log them in your memory because that is something you can draw on when conversing with that student in the future. “Remember the time when we…” is a great ‘in’ for future conversation.

Pilot the landing.
The conversation started smooth (take off). You have heard their stories and got to share some of your own while doing your best to implement the steps above (in flight). Then comes the frequently awkward moment where you disengage from the conversation (landing). I use this metaphor of take off, in flight, and landing because I really think we need to mentally emphasize it this way.  We talk a lot about first impressions, but I have noticed that last impressions are very important. We may do great on the take off and the in flight, but then botch the landing.  So here are some landing tips.

Name: You should know their name from Step 2. Now you need to say it in the last sentence you share with them.  This not only reinforces their name in your head, but it also reminds them that you cared enough to remember their name throughout the conversation.

Encourage: End with a sincere and encouraging comment about your conversation with them. Not simply “have an awesome day” or whatever we come to say without even thinking about the words we are using, but something uniquely encouraging.

Story: Include something you learned about them throughout the conversation if you can.  This helps them know you cared and it again reinforces their story in your memory.

Here are some examples:

“Billy, it was really great meeting you, I will be praying for your dad.”
 
“I really enjoyed talking with you Samantha, good luck in your game tomorrow.”
 
“Really glad I got to meet you Ben, I am around all night if you have any questions, I hope you enjoy your first time with us.”

3 First Impression Killers To Avoid:

Cell Phone
Do not be distracted by your cell phone. Students are ignored more and more because of technology.  I fail at this all the time. I had a student just a week ago say, “Did you hear anything I just said?” And of course I didn’t.  Now it wasn’t the first encounter I had with this student, and it was my wife I was texting, but I should’ve explained that to the student because they are ignored consistently for Facebook, Twitter, etc. Do not allow technology to kill your first impression.

Looking Beyond
Do not look beyond the student you are talking to, toward the next student you are wanting or going to talk to.  Be fully present in the conversation you are having.  Eye contact.  Also, stay fully present when the student checks their phone or looks beyond you, because they probably will. But you need to do your best to stay present with them, showing them that you care about what they have to say and they are where your full attention is right now.

Talking Too Much
Do not dominate the conversation. Share your stories, but make sure you give students the opportunity to share. Ask questions that lead to a story type of answer. You ask, “How was the basketball game?” Student replies, “Good.” You ask, “What was good about it?” Always try to keep the line of communication open on both ends so they have an opportunity to communicate their stories and experiences.

What first impression steps would you include that I left out?

Visit My Blog: http://pastorjustindouglas.com/2013/02/01/7-steps-for-great-first-impressions/

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