In 1955 in Bangkok, Thailand, a Buddha statue of no particular significance, made of stucco and bits of colored glass, was moved from its tin-roofed shelter to another location. At 9’ tall and weighing over 5 tons, moving this statue was no easy feat.
While it was being settled onto its new pedestal, the ropes broke, and it crashed to the ground, cracking the plaster. This accident revealed the statue’s incredible worth. Underneath the unassuming layer of stucco and glass, the hidden composition of the statue was solid gold.
Robert Ferrell, who has served with young adults in many callings and is currently a mission president in Lima, Peru, shares the story of uncovering the golden Buddha in his Seek course on helping young adults connect with Christ. His takeaway from this story of the golden Buddha statue helps build relationships with young adults: “We need to help everyone, but especially our youth, we need to help them see the gold beneath the clay and really see their potential and who they are.”
Focusing on the positive, on their inherent and invaluable worth, can improve personal relationships with young adults and also help to give them inner strength to draw on as they navigate new experiences and the myriad of choices before them.
Watch the video below and then keep reading for simple, applicable ways you can focus on the positive and improve your relationships with young adults.
How to connect through positivity
Give genuine compliments
In a memorable scene in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Collins says, “I sometimes amuse myself with suggesting and arranging such little elegant compliments as may be adapted to ordinary occasions, I always wish to give them as unstudied an air as possible." Sometimes, like Mr. Collins, we overthink if or how to give a compliment, especially to a young adult. Perhaps because we want to avoid coming off as awkward or insincere. But, a kind word is never wasted, no matter how imperfect the delivery.
A few weeks ago, Holly, one of my young adult coworkers, received a compliment via a Marco Polo message. “It was pretty casual,” she shared, “but that made it feel genuine. I think maybe people overthink how the message should get across, but it can be normal and honest.”
Part of what makes a compliment feel genuine, especially for young adults, is that it isn’t attached to something that’s meant to introduce constructive criticism or initiate some kind of agenda for change.
My son, Ridge, said, “It’s good to hear things whether it’s positive or negative. When it’s positive though, it’s hard to have them not come across as forced, so if it feels like a forced compliment then I’d probably rather not hear it.” A compliment for compliment’s sake, however, feels like an expression of appreciation that helps the other person feel seen.
Sister Tamara Runia shared a similar idea in her October 2023 general conference message. Talking about having her young adult children over for Sunday dinners, she said, “When I saw my grown children for that brief time each week, I focused on the many positive things they were already doing. When our oldest son, Ryan, passed away a few years later, I remember being grateful our time together was happier and more positive.”
Abraham, another of my young adult coworkers, described it this way: “When [compliments] are shared from a genuine space of openness and not trying to do anything with it, just genuinely being like, this is awesome, [that means the most]. Just like when you’re eating someone’s food and it was good and you compliment their food, you have no other reason to say it except to say this is amazing.”
I love this idea of giving compliments to others in the same way I’d give compliments to the chef. A compliment given as an expression of joy and gratitude from the giver to the receiver will always feel warm and genuine. This is one way to approach genuinely connecting young adults to help them know their worth.
Look for strengths
Everyone needs a reminder every once in a while about their talents and strengths. “My experience working with young adults is [that] they already have enough negativity in their life, they don’t need more of it," Rob explains. "One of the things that I have found to be a little different is to focus on strengths instead of weaknesses.”
While serving as a young men's leader, Rob took the time to observe and reflect on the talents and abilities he saw in a young man who was acting out, then gave him a 3x5 card listing those strengths. This card ended up being something the young man kept as a reminder for many years of the good someone saw in him.
The young adults I spoke with didn’t feel like it was necessary to make this kind of a list in order to point out a strength and make an impact in their lives. Without a genuine connection first, something like what Rob shared could end up feeling too forced and weird from a young adult perspective. “A sticky note with things [I'm] good at ... would make me uncomfortable,” Anna explains, “but a personal thought with an anecdote of some kind would be perfect.”
Anna also shared, “If [telling me a strength] comes after the strength is exemplified, that’s helpful. For me, I [once] did something that was really vulnerable that helped a lot of other people, … and afterward, someone who I really respect and trust pulled me aside and said, ‘Your ability to be vulnerable is a strength that you have and you should own that more often.’ Pointing out of it was super beneficial to me because I felt seen and validated that what I had done was good.”
Holly and Anna both shared that a simple text or quick note means a lot.
“A text [could say], ‘Hey, I’ve been thinking about how you do [this] and I really admire it. Or, hey, I’ve been thinking about you, I admire this.’ Instead of listing out strengths, work them into the thought,” Holly said.
Anna added, “If it’s a hand-written note that says something like, ‘Hey, I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate you, you’ve been on my mind lately, I’m really proud of how you.’ I would probably cry.”
Rob shares questions that help him identify the strengths of young adults so he can share what might not be apparent to them.
- What do they enjoy doing and respond quickly to? For example, Rob loves public speaking and will clear his schedule when an opportunity comes so he can do it. Enjoyment of a task or calling could be an indication of a gift or talent. Personalize this observation by citing a specific occasion when you saw this young adult in action.
- What do they remember easily and isn’t especially a challenge to learn? For young adults trying to figure out what to major in or what vocational career to pursue, it can be helpful for someone else to confirm what they feel is true about themselves as they take that step forward.
- What comes naturally to them and seems to be part of who they are? They might not realize this is a talent or gift, but you can see it because this skill doesn’t come naturally to you. My mom is an interior designer. When she was a young adult, she didn’t realize that other people couldn’t walk into a room and redecorate it in their head, visualizing where the furniture could go or what other treatments could be done to give a room a fresher configuration. Because this came so naturally to her, she thought it was something everyone could do.
- What is the one thing that when they do it, it seems like they’re in the zone? Maybe it's a pastime that to them seems fun but isn't something everyone can do as easily.
Conversely, another way to identify strengths is by looking at how someone handles difficulties when they arise, or when something isn’t easy to remember, or when there is a challenge to learning.
- Do you notice tenacity and persistence when they figure out a problem?
- Do they have the ability to try again to accomplish something they want to do, even when it is difficult?
- Like Nephi, do they look at a task like building a ship where even though they don’t know how, they know they can figure it out and trust in the Lord’s help?
Sharing strengths is a small way to connect with young adults and help them understand their golden potential they might not be able to see in themselves.
Listen without judgment
One key to building a safe and strong relationship with anyone, but especially with young adults, is to listen without judgment. When listening to a young adult share what’s going on in their life, it can be easy to form opinions on what they should do next based on personal experience and then give those ideas in response.
Abraham admitted that this seems to be the more natural thing people do, perhaps because listening without forming judgment takes effort. “Sometimes it’s hard to be heard or understood because everyone’s usually just kind of wrapped up in their own thoughts. You’re understanding what someone’s saying through your own perception instead of just hearing,” he says.
One way to be a better listener is to ask how you can be of help during the conversation. "You can say, did you just need to vent? Or do you want feedback or advice?” Holly shares. “It’s as simple as that in casual conversation. It’s really not hard or awkward.” She adds this caveat: “They need to give you their consent [for you] to advise.” Without that clarification, the most well-meaning advice can turn into one-sided conversation or lecture and the potential for true connection is lost.
Anna added, “A lot of times [a problem is] weighing on my mind and I just need to get it out, I don’t need someone to tell me what to do. Most of the time I’m actively solving it on my own.”
My daughter, Laine, is a freshman in college, and trying to figure out the path of her life. “Reassurance is probably the best thing to hear,” she explains. “I’d like to hear from adults that I’m doing a good job where I’m at right now and that it’s OK that I don’t have everything figured out.”
I wish I could give Laine a map to follow based on my own findings from when I was a freshman in college, but the world is a different place, and my map wouldn’t be helpful to the path she needs to follow. I can, however, work on being a better listener, and give her reassurance and support as she navigates her life.
Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said, “To effectively serve others we must see them through a parent’s eyes, through Heavenly Father’s eyes. Only then can we begin to comprehend the true worth of a soul. Only then can we sense the love that Heavenly Father has for all of His children. Only then can we sense the Savior’s caring concern for them. … This expanded perspective will open our hearts to the disappointments, fears, and heartaches of others. But Heavenly Father will aid and comfort us.”
Listening without judgment allows room for the Spirit to be part of the conversation and helps us see each other through God’s eyes.
Create trust and be trusting
One way to create trust is to consistently show up in a young adult’s life with genuine interest and communicate in a way that’s comfortable for them.
When Anna was a busy senior in high school with a lot of school and work obligations, she often missed weekly Young Women activities. One of her leaders kept in touch with her regularly but never made her feel guilty when she couldn’t participate. Later, when Anna needed to talk about a problem, she went to see her former Young Women leader because she had shown that she cared. Anna explained, “If you want someone to trust you, be who you are, but give them the space to be themselves.”
When looking for ways to communicate and build trust, Anna offered this simple question to start a conversation: What’s been keeping you busy?
It’s not profound, but both Holly and Anna said it’s a question that allows for safe and open answers on many levels. “[What’s been keeping you busy?] is an umbrella question,” Holly explains. “[The answers could be] ‘I’ve been reading, or I’ve been watching TV, or I’ve been really into crocheting.’ If you want to know about their dating life, ask them what’s keeping them busy and I promise you if they want to talk about who they’re dating, they’ll tell you; they’ll find a way to bring it up in the conversation.”
When I asked Holly how someone becomes a trusted person in her life, she said, “Time. Taking personal interest in me.”
Ridge echoed this sentiment that he would appreciate adults showing “more interest in [my] life in general because I don’t think many adults know me very well and it can be difficult to start a conversation with someone older and busier.” Asking, “What’s keeping you busy?” is a good starting place because it allows someone to share more about themselves than if you only ask about things they're doing, like work and school.
Another way to create trust is to be trusting of the strengths, talents, skills, and spiritual gifts each young adult possesses and then to give them the space to share those gifts.
President M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has said, “For many years, we have talked about “young single adults,” “single adults,” and “adults.” Those designations can be administratively helpful at times but can inadvertently change how we perceive others. Is there a way to avoid this human tendency that can separate us from one another? President Nelson asked that we refer to ourselves as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That seems to cover all of us, doesn’t it?"
Let them shine
When the woman with the issue of blood reached out and touched the hem of Jesus’s robe, though He was thronged with people touching Him on every side, He said, “Somebody hath touched me: for I perceive that virtue is gone out of me.” (Luke 8:46) He felt her reach for Him, stopped to take notice of her, and, in front of everyone there, pointed out the strength of her faith. Jesus complimented the woman’s faith and accepted it without judgment, pointed out her strength, and showed her His trust. He helped this woman shine.
The young adults in our lives need this kind of trust from us. “Let’s help young adults see the gold beneath the clay by focusing on their strengths,” Rob says. “As we help them see who they really are, that will help them discover their purpose and give them more meaning in their lives.”
Rob’s full Seek class is available here.
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