Earning the Right to Be Heard

“No man is a leader until his appointment is approved by the people that he leads.” 

John Maxwell

How often do we hear someone complain that teens lack respect? There is an expectation that they should listen to and respect us because we are adults. We draw from our own experience. When we were younger, respecting our elders wasn’t optional.

Today, many children don’t learn to respect those in authority, which dramatically changes the dynamic. In fact, it places the burden on us to earn their respect, just as we must earn the respect of other adults. Even if we are teachers, administrators, coaches, community leaders or mentors, respect is not guaranteed. If we are of a different race or gender, respect might be intentionally denied as a power play.

No matter who we are, demanding respect tends to backfire. At best, the young people might temporarily modify their behavior; but if we are interacting with them regularly, we want to be respected and we want to make a lasting impact. Ideally, we want to inspire genuine follow-ship, which means that we don’t simply want our mentees to follow our instructions. We want them to feel confident that the guidance we provided was in their best interests.  

Getting to that point can be difficult because it requires us to engage with teens whose life experiences and family situations might be dramatically different from ours. These young men and woman might be difficult to understand or might not want to be understood.

Many minority men today cannot envision growing old, so long-range planning isn’t routine. They rarely contemplate the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” These young men — and the adults in their lives — have witnessed many injustices. They may have even been subjected to a few.

It’s been my experience that if I am authentic, transparent, humble enough to earn their respect and willing to invest the time, I can find common ground on which to build a trusting relationship. Eventually, I am able to win their respect and they will allow me to guide them to a healthier place because they know I have their backs, I genuinely care. That is huge when trying to earn the ear of young men who may not have experienced a lot of caring from others and may not feel safe caring for others.

Through trial and error, I learned how to topple this hurdle. At first, I thought I knew the needs of the adolescents I mentored: A positive strong male role model who could tell them how to be successful. My remedy was met with marginal success. I then humbled myself and began to ask each person how I could serve them. That changed everything.

Often, our teens need a safe space to openly express themselves, release their anger or simply share their stories with someone who will listen. By being slow to talk and quick to listen, I have been able to gain trust and relationship in expedited time.

There is no tried-and-true formula for earning the right to be heard. However, five simple actions have been quite effective for me:

1. Share your story and listen to theirs.

Everyone has a story, and it might be surprising how a glimpse into our lives can inspire a mentee to open a window into theirs. When I speak to a group of young men — or any group of people — I share my story with them—the good, the bad, and the ugly. It is the first step in earning the right to be heard by a large audience. But it also is very powerful in launching a one-on-one mentoring relationship.

2. Listen to your mentee’s needs.

You may assume you know the needs of others, but you will not fully know until you listen to them. To earn the right to be heard, you first must listen, understand what matters most and assist them in some form or fashion.

By listening, the ensuing conversation becomes clearer and straightforward. Youth do not have the innate need to get their way. They do have the innate need to be heard. We gain respect in response to showing respect. When we listen, we genuinely show respect for a student. We elicit transparency, and over time, a reciprocal response from them toward you.

3. Be humble.

Sure, you have a stellar profile to boast about. But not everyone cares about your credentials. Teens and young adults are drawn to us for various reasons. They may see something in us that can address their concern, so they reach out. There are times when, in our effort to impress, young people are turned off because they feel that our pedigree is unattainable to them. So, make sure to talk about the trials, tribulations and lessons that enabled you to achieve success.

4. Ask questions.

We authentically demonstrate we care when we ask questions for understanding. Teens often love to talk about themselves, when they know we have their best interest at heart, we gain credibility. They begin to believe us and take our leadership seriously.

5. Ask for feedback.

We are not perfect. Often as leaders and mentors, we want to appear to have all the answers. To earn the right to be heard, ask for feedback. Young people have great ideas that can enhance the learning or mentorship experience. By asking for feedback and implementing some of their suggestions, we build bridges of relationship that can bear the weight of truth. Even hard truth.

6. Be authentic.

“To thine own self be true.” The worst thing a leader or mentor can do is pretend to be someone he is not. I have seen people who tried to speak, act, and dress differently than who they really are because they thought they would fit in better. This often leads to disaster. People can see straight through people who are phony or pretending to be something they are not. You are the best version of you and the worst version of anyone else. The best way to lead and teach is to further develop and grow being truly yourself.

7. Lead by example.

Treat others how you would want to be treated. As leaders and mentors, we must model behavior. They difficult thing about modeling behavior is that we often do not want to adhere to the same standards we expect from others. Leading by example is doing the right thing, despite the other person doing the wrong thing. Young people will test you, to see if you live by what you preach. Being consistent, kind but firm, and slow to anger are key characteristics in earning the right to be heard. If you follow the steps above you will indeed be leading by example, and young people will begin to listen to you. To establish rapport, it is important to know and truly understand what’s important and matters to the people that you want to influence. Leaders and mentors should strive for more than mere behavior modification. If we want true respect, we must remember that it’s earned. Listening is the key. Ask questions to establish their needs, desires and other concerns. This boosts their trust in you and develops the trusting foundation necessary to build and develop a relationship.

By Walter Mendenhall

Walter completed his initial Urban weekend for men in 2013 and is currently enrolled in our Two-Year Transformational program. Having accomplished his lifelong dream of making it to the National Football League (NFL), Walter’s desire for mentoring and teaching young people prompted him to walk away from football to focus on pursuing his passion for teaching the next generation of leaders. He is currently a professor at Northeastern Illinois University (Leadership Development) and South Suburban College (Sociology), and a successful motivational speaker and mentor.

Photo Credit: Brian Ujiie via Creative Commons