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Switching Targets – Two Practices that Get Results

The daunting task of youth ministry revolves around making a change in the lives of teenagers. We all start with this goal in mind, but something usually happens along the way. Maybe we have agendas forced on us, or we get hurt and start playing it safe. Either way, grooves become worn in the road we travel in youth ministry. These habits form without our knowing and can limit our effectiveness.

While reading the Heath brother’s book Switch, I came across two great reminders for leading change in the lives of young adults. Here are two concepts that will help you limit habits and free yourself from imposed outcomes.

Decision Paralysis
I couldn’t tell you how many times as a small group leader I required students to drink from the fire hose. They would come to me with burdens, and I would give them everything I can think of to help. Too much advice, as wise as it might be, is still too much. The Heath brothers call this Decision Paralysis. Too many choices make it hard to choose a path forward.

Switch tells the story of a doctor and patient with few choices for their chronic, arthritic hip pain. When a doctor has exhausted all medications available to cure the arthritis, he begins to prepare for surgery. Just before scheduling surgery though, a new drug is discovered that might cure the patient. Many doctors (47%) will try this new drug to forego the trauma of surgery. Yet when there are two drugs left, only 28% will choose either drug over surgery.

It’s way more productive to give adolescents one clear next step and a farther reaching goal. By doing this, we provide a direction for them that can be seen and followed. They will know quickly if they are following the path and be assured of their progress.

The other idea the Heath’s write about concerns a school counselor who meets with a problem student only once every other week. She realizes her impact will be severely limited just because of the time spent with the student. She also knows that she will be equally limited by the child’s home life which she is powerless to change as well. So instead of typical therapy, where she would dig into the young boy’s past, she focuses on quick solutions to his behavior.

Studying his behavior when he doesn’t get into trouble, she develops a series of unusual questions. These questions bring all of the boy’s attention to what happens when he doesn’t get into trouble. When he doesn’t get into trouble the teacher greets him at the door, he is given clear directions that he understands and his assignments are ones that he can achieve. This information is shared with teachers who are dying for a way to calm their classrooms by changing one student’s behavior.

Guess what, it works. In youth ministry, we often focus a lot of time and energy trying to correct behavior by exploring the past. In doing that, the focus is usually on what not to do. This practice of correction has typical results. Behavior doesn’t change, but shame and feelings of inadequacy grow from the expectations of the leader.

If we switch our suggestions to repeating success, then we have a more hopeful future. Instead of telling a young man to stop looking at porn, we ask him what he would like to do instead of acting on his temptations. Or we can ask him what he does when he resists. This gives a positive view of the future rather than a disgraceful reminder of failure.

In following these two principles, a couple of side benefits have crept in. First, I don’t feel like I need to give amazing insight. I’m released from having to be the sage oracle at every meeting. Second, since these techniques center on the teen, it helps them develop problem solving skills of their own.

These ideas may be completely new to you, but I would bet that you practice some form of these ideas daily. If they are new, give them a try. If you recognize these already, let this remind you like it did me to be the change-makers we want to be.

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3 thoughts on “Switching Targets – Two Practices that Get Results

  1. Great advice! I need this reminder with my own kids. This is similar to what we’ve been taught in dealing with toddlers/preschoolers. Give one simple command at a time because that’s all they can focus on. One directive would probably benefit us all when we need advice or help! thanks for sharing this!

    Please feel free to stop by: Trailing After God

  2. I agree with the solution-focused approach.

    However, not sure if I completely agree with “decision paralysis”.  It’s not up to us to present that “1 clear next step” because then we take ownership of that decision, not them.  But I do agree that offering up all the options in the world does create paralysis.  It’s helping them think through those 2-3 (or whatever #) options and for them to own it.

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