How to Survive a Conversation with a Teen: 5 Tips

Misho Stefanov has spent 15 years interacting with adolescents—as director of The Bridge Youth Festival, the lead singer of a rock band, a mountain guide, (briefly) a boxing gym manager, and, most recently, founder of the Mini Machines educational project, supported by ABF. We asked him about the secret to success in communication with the world’s most misunderstood human beings—as not only has he survived, but teens also seem to kind of like him.

Tip 1: Try to like them. Really. 

The first thing we need to realize about teenagers is that they rarely like themselves. They are tremendously insecure. And if you really like them (I know, it’s hard!) and show it, the odds of surviving the conversation are in your favor. That’s why I tell them very often, “I really like you,” and they giggle awkwardly at first, but actually feel great about it.

Tip 2: Be honest. Brutally honest.

I have found that 13-19-year-olds have a built-in lie detector, and it’s extremely powerful. They’ll catch you immediately if you try to lie, and they’ll never believe anything you say after that. Trust is a vital issue when it comes to teens—it is very difficult to win and very easy to lose. Being open with them is of paramount importance, even if you have to admit you don’t know something. And they’ll be very impressed if you acknowledge you’ve made a mistake and apologize.

Tip 3: Avoid top-down communication.

Teens are sick of being talked down to because teachers and parents do it all the time. They yearn to be treated like adults; if you do this, you’ll win them over right away. Yes, they will inevitably (and soon) discover that adults have loads of unpleasant obligations and responsibilities, but they won’t be able to refuse them because they’d have to admit they weren’t ready to be treated like adults—and they’d rather have a root canal.

Tip 4: Hold your fire.

The worst thing you can do to a teenager is try to prove you were right using force. The victims on the battlefield would always be more than the survivors, and your victory might come at a very high price. Instead, let your teens have a different opinion (except on vital or life-threatening issues) and show them that you won’t give in to their incessant attempts to provoke you.

Tip 5: Sometimes, just sometimes, really listen.

Our natural instinct is always to talk to not with adolescents—we either criticize them or give unrequested advice, or both. One thing that always wins them over (perhaps because it rarely occurs) is when you listen to them carefully. If you find the inner strength to do it (believe me, it’s easier and more fun than it sounds), you’ll soon find yourself on their favorite-person list.

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