This is the Start of Something Beautiful: Answering Difficult Questions

This is the Start of Something Beautiful: Answering Difficult Questions

By Ruthie Kolb, Training Manager
August 11, 2016

“Can I keep you in my pocket for when my students ask a REALLY difficult question?” That question, folks, is the #1 comment I receive from our trainings. And I understand it. It’s a real concern. It’s a question about that panic that you feel when you think, “What if a student asks such a doozy of a question that I couldn’t even begin to anticipate if I wanted to?” And you can picture the scene: your face feels like it’s on fire, and your words get twisted around in your mouth, and you say something that will have parents knocking down your door, and OMG, by tomorrow you will have no job.It’s over.

It doesn’t actually happen like that, but it sometimes feels like it will, right?

We at Colorado Youth Matter have the advantage of it being our job to think through these questions, to leave no sexual health topic uncharted. We have spent hours and hours talking about sexuality every day while the educators we train practice for approximately 30 minutes. Max. So, here is my proposal – I will share my practice with you. Like most sorts of practice (sports, musical instruments, public speaking), you may have to give a little input yourself for it to be the most effective, but I think together, we can do this!

Here’s what it will look like

1. You send me the questions you receive. Any of them. All of them. The ones that really stumped you. The ones that you answered, but you weren’t really sure if you got it “right”. (PS – Don’t worry; you were probably fine.)

2. I will answer them in a monthly blog. But since the goal of this is not to make you into me (because that doesn’t work), I will mostly focus on my reasoning as I answer the question. That way, you can answer in whatever words are most natural to you. I am trying to teach you how to process these difficult questions. There is no perfect answer.

3. You practice. Think how you would answer the question. Would my words work for you? Would they work for your students? Would you change them? Practice saying OUT LOUD what you would say to the youth in your world. I know, that just seems too awkward – talking to yourself about sex as you drive home from work or practicing in front of your friend or partner. But just like I wouldn’t play air guitar to practice for my band’s debut, you have to practice having the words actually come out of your mouth to make this practice the most beneficial to your teaching.

To get us started, here is a reminder of the protocol we often use for answering difficult questions. There are a lot of similar tools out there in the sexual health education realm; this is just the one that “stuck” for us.

A – Affirm the Asker. It is hard for some students to ask questions, so it's important for us to tell them that there is no “bad” question. By using phrases like “I get this question frequently,” “I think a lot of people in the room are wondering about this,” and “I am SO GLAD that you asked this,” you are keeping the environment positive, youth-centered, and open to interaction. Way to go, you!

Even if you have a student who you think is trying to be disruptive by asking an extreme question, I want us to assume best intent – that there is a genuine need for information in that question. "Affirm the asker" means that you even affirm THAT asker. Always always ALWAYS affirm the asker.

N – Note if the Question is Values-Based. When youth ask questions, they rarely ask simple cut-and-dry information questions. There is often at least a little bit of a values request intermingled in their question. This is the part where you either verbally or internally dissect the question – which part of this question addresses values, and which part can you answer with medically accurate information? Once you have determined which part of the question is values-based, you can move on to...

S – State the Facts. Give the student the medically-accurate information on the topic (if there is any). If you are not sure, or you think you know but aren't completely certain, assume you don’t know. For example, if a student asks you about the symptoms of chlamydia, and you aren’t perfectly sure, you can always answer “You know, I am not exactly sure what the symptoms of chlamydia are, but I can look it up and I will get back to you tomorrow. However, I do know that many people don’t have symptoms for STIs. Therefore, the only way to know if someone has an STI is to get checked for one.”

W – What is the Range of Values. Describe the range of values on the topic (if there are values in the question). Make sure to not just describe the two opposite poles of beliefs but also the nuanced middle ground. Most peoples’ values don’t fall on either opposite extreme, and it’s important to introduce youth to the ideas of a nuanced middle-ground in our values.

E – Encourage Talking with Parents or Other Trusted Adults for Values. We don’t share our personal experiences or values with our students. We want them to form their values from their parents, other guardians/caregivers, religious leaders, family members, or other trusted adults.

We also know that when youth are able to form their own values and decision-making around those values, they are much more likely to stick with their decisions than if an adult tells them what to think. So, you could not only help youth think of a trusted adult they could talk with but you could also help them weigh for themselves some of the factors that would help them form their values – What are some possible rewards of each choice? What are some possible consequences? What are other factors or people involved with each choice? How will you know what to choose? 
By going through this process, when the teen is faced with similar choices in the future, they now have some of the skills to problem-solve for themselves, without an adult present.

R – Remain available and check that you’ve answered the question. “Does that answer your question?” “Do you have any follow-up questions?” “Let me know if you need anything else,” etc.

With these steps refreshed, let’s try out a question that we've received.

My boyfriend wants to have sex but I am not sure, what do you think I should do?

There are lots of different versions of this question, but the common themes are (1) a youth isn't sure if they are ready or not for a sexual activity and (2) they want your advice. This is the point at which it's easy to react with your own values, because you probably have an idea of who the teen is and what their relationships are like. But our role is not to tell them what to think: we are there to help them learn HOW to think so that when future decisions come, they are prepared to make their own, informed choices.

Aside from decision-making skills, when answering this question we also want to make sure that we address a few key points of functional health knowledge, including consent, pregnancy, and STI transmission – those are the facts we want to make sure that they know when they leave the conversation.

Additionally, if this is an anonymous question, it is very important that you do not assume the gender of the person who is asking the question.

So, let's give this one a try.

It's really common for people – even adults! -- to have questions about their sexual activity. We all have to make decisions about if, how, when, and with whom we are sexually active, and it sometimes isn't an easy decision to make! I'm not going to be able to give you advice about whether you want to have sex or not, but I can help you think through the decision.

The first rule of romantic relationships is that everyone has the right to say who touches their body and how. So, if a partner is doing something you don't want, you have every right to say "no", and they must listen to you. It is not ok for someone to force, guilt, coerce, or manipulate another person into sexual activity. Do you feel safe with this person?

The second fact that is important to think about is protection – if people are having vaginal sex, they can get pregnant, even the first time. And STIs can be spread through vaginal, anal, and oral sex. So, if you are thinking about having sex, do you know how you will protect yourself? Do you know how you will bring protection up with your partner?

But, beyond the facts, people have different values about when is the right time to have sex. For some people, sex is a way to communicate love in a marriage or a committed relationship. To some people, sex is less serious, and it's enjoyable in casual relationships. For others, sex is part of developing a relationship. But for everyone, it's important to think through your own values around sex – how do you know when to have sex with a person? What are some of the signs you could look for to know if you want to have sex? (Let the group give some of their ideas or criteria to get some examples.) What are some risks or consequences you may need to think about if you decide to have sex? (Let the group give some examples again.)

It may also be helpful to talk to other adults in your life with whom you can talk to think through your values. Could you talk with your parents or another trusted adult to think through your family, cultural, or religious values around when to have sex?

Does this answer your question? Do you have any follow-up questions for me?

So, what do you think? Have you received this question before? Have you given a different answer you’d like to share? Do you have other questions that you would like for us to help you troubleshoot? Email me (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.). I can’t wait to hear from you and share some more awesome questions with you next month!

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