Speaking into a Student’s Life

I recently received a letter from a former student, dating back to 1988. He’s now in mid-life and is a husband and father to three kids. He wrote me, however, because he wanted to say thanks for a conversation we had when he was a college sophomore. I’m sure you’ve received notes like this one. In the end, his message was:

That conversation changed my life.

What’s striking is, I vividly remember this student, but I don’t remember what I said in that conversation. It was one of those passing discussions among many I had that day. For him, however, it changed the trajectory of his life. It was a teachable moment. I wish I were better at recognizing these moments when they come.

This week, I’ve been blogging about a leader’s intuition — what to say to students who are in need. Each of us has had moments where we encounter a troubled kid who needs more than information from us. They need us to leverage our words to impart a thought that inspires and empowers them. I summarized my thoughts in my first post with this:

The right word is about using the right term at the right time with the right team.

Today, I’d like to ask two questions:

  • How do you know when it’s the right moment?
  • How do you know what to say to speak into a student’s life?

Spotting the Right Moment

Teachable moments can surface at any time. As you well know, they don’t always emerge during a class or when you have margin in your day. You can often tell a student needs this extra interaction when you spot the following symptoms:

  • Hostile Attitude (Angry at our lack of approval)
  • Entitled Spirit (Presumptive that they deserve favors)
  • Insecurity (Feeling unsure about the acceptance of others)
  • Inexpressive Demeanor (The withdrawal from others due to a fear of risk)
  • Independent Spirit (Deciding they must fend for themselves)
  • Driven Spirit (Determined to perform, achieve and get noticed)
  • Tendency to Sabotage Self (Undermining growth feeling they’re undeserving)
  • Co-Dependency (Needing to be needed; they rescue or need to be rescued)

What It Means to Speak into Their Life

I love the term “speaking into their life.” It implies that we are speaking personally and intimately to them. It also implies that we are speaking words of direction or perspective that will impact them. It means speaking to a relevant need in their life and empowering them with our words. It may mean speaking words of vision for their future. This act requires us to fully engage with a student.

We see this kind of interaction in tribal cultures, where villages celebrate a “rite of passage” with their young. (Some African cultures still practice this today.) These celebrations involve elders speaking words of affirmation and challenge to a young adolescent.

In ancient cultures, patriarchs had their own version of this. Centuries ago, for instance, it was common for Hebrew fathers to speak words of blessing (affirmation and direction) to their children as they grew into adulthood. It was a “rite of passage” for young men. It was as though these fathers knew the intrinsic need we all have for someone in authority to believe in us and tell us so. Years ago, authors Gary Smalley and John Trent wrote an excellent book called The Blessing. In it, they describe the five elements of this blessing.

The Blessing Consists Of…

  1. Meaningful Touch (An embrace or a hand on the shoulder)
  1. Spoken Word (Specific words of direction or affirmation)
  1. Expression of High Value (Communicating they have what it takes)
  1. Description of a Special Future (Often expressed in word pictures)
  1. Application of Genuine Commitment (Commitment to see them succeed)

We live in an age where people seem more wounded than ever. It is now common for students to grow up in a world involving divorce, abuse, dysfunction, incest, mental illness, addictive behavior or co-dependent relationships. Needy people are everywhere. So, how does this affect our mentoring? Do we simply try to avoid these issues? Do we ignore them or pretend they aren’t there?

Obviously, we can’t do this if we intend to lead well. Instead, we must recover this practice performed by foreign and ancient cultures (patriarchs and leaders) with their people. Because most families don’t practice giving this “blessing” to their sons and daughters, I believe mentors must pick up the slack and do it for their mentees.

It is up to us to let them know they have what it takes.

(The preceding excerpt is from my book Life Giving Mentors.)

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Speaking into a Student’s Life