Sexual Health Issues

More than words: DIVN in to communication

Good communication = Good communication = hard stuff!

The key to good relationships, whether between you and a adolescent/client, or among adolescents is understanding, and the key to understanding is…communication!

If we can’t communicate effectively with other people, then they won’t understand us—and all sorts of problems can occur, including misunderstandings and arguments!

Communication not only helps us understand others, and helps others understand us, it also helps us better understand ourselves! In the process of communication, we often clarify our own values, desires, and doubts.

You might think communication is pretty easy: you say something, people listen and understand it, and you move on, but communication is rarely that simple. People do not always say exactly what they mean, and sometimes they say nothing at all and we have to figure out what they mean from their actions.

Filters change our perspective

And we all have our own “filters” through which we view and experience our world. Our past experiences, attitudes, values and beliefs create meaning that is unique to us. This is why ten people can hear a statement and hear ten different things! Only by having an awareness of what our personal values or “lens” are, can we be able to have insight about how they impact our life and work.

The Role of our Role

The nature of the relationship we have with the young person also provides a “filter” or perspective for us. This guides us in what we respond to and how we respond to it. The way a tutor or academic helper interacts with youth may be different than how a sports coach interacts with a young person, their specific concerns and techniques may vary, based on their role or position. The setting can impact the tone of our message, especially regarding values around sexuality topics. Faith-based and private settings often have clear values statements about many aspects of sexual health. YDPs working in public, and government funded facilities and programs too often do not have the benefit of clarity about organizational values or policies for the many variances and questions that exist within sexuality.

Different ways we communicate: DIVN in

How are words and actions used to communicate our goals and desires, especially around sexual health related issues?

For many of us, silence or euphemisms are the hallmark of our experience communicating with adults about sexuality when we were young. Mostly no one says anything directly. In the absence of helpful healthy messages, confusion persists since there is ample access to mixed messages. Some are biased and inaccurate, and are sometimes not in keeping with healthier values. Media messages, online interactions, and peers can all fall into this category. So how can do we communicate?

When we think about communication we probably first think of using words: that is, we communicate by telling people something, either out loud, on paper, or through electronic messages. These types of communication, that use words, are often called “verbal” communications.

However, we also communicate non-verbally; that is, we use our actions and body language to communicate with people.

Sometimes people say MORE with their body language and actions than they do with words.

In addition to communicating verbally and non-verbally; that is, with our words AND with our bodies, we also communicate directly and indirectly.

We communicate directly when we say or do something that expresses exactly what we want or feel.

We communicate indirectly when we say or do something related to what we want or feel but not exactly what we want.

Direct communication is usually more effective because there is less room for misunderstanding when we are saying and doing exactly what we want to get across to the other person. Indirect communication often leaves a lot of room for misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

Together, these four represent how we DIVN (‘dive in’) to communicate: direct, indirect, verbal, non-verbal. All of these forms of communication may be useful in specific situations.

An Example: Wearing a helmet

So let’s dive in with an example. Imagine you are working at a construction site and you want visitors to the site to wear a hard hat to protect their heads. What can you do?

A direct verbal approach is to tell the visitor, “You need to wear a hard hat to enter this area.”

An indirect verbal approach is to tell the visitor that, “It might be hazardous in that area, are you safe?”

Notice how the direct approach specifically states what you want the visitor to do, while the indirect one only suggests it and leaves room for many different responses? Which is likely to be more effective?

Remember, you can also communicate non-verbally. A non-verbal direct approach would be to actually pull helmets out and place them on visitors’ heads before they enter the construction zone.

Finally, a non-verbal indirect approach would be to leave helmets on a table by the entrance to the construction zone.

Of course, the best approach is to combine all of these: tell people they need to use a helmet (and put a sign up that reminds them), tell them that it may be hazardous, put helmets by the entrance, and place helmets on the heads of visitors who forget to do it themselves.

DIVN to your Community-based Organization

Can you imagine how these four approaches might be used in relationships? You can definitely communicate directly and indirectly, verbally and non-verbally, about abstinence and about risk reduction…. A condom is a helmet, nudge nudge…

You may also communicate indirectly and non-verbally by how you respond to stereotypes, stigmatizing language or behaviors around you, or even harassing or bullying in your organization.

Picture a group of young women talking about the latest music video and casting all young males as sexually adventurous predators who are players looking to get over on them. How do you address this?
Or you can DIVN when you are talking directly to an adolescent about a sexual health issue and be careful not to convey mixed messages.

For example, if you say the sexes are equal but assign cooking and cleaning tasks to young women and yard work to young men, you are not modeling the intended message and belief. You would further confuse things (or undercut your intended message) by not addressing name calling based on gender.


Imagine a YDP demonstrating how to use a condom properly for a group of teens. The YDP demonstrates each step accurately and clearly. When the condom is unrolled and the lub gets on the YDPs hands, s/he grimaces at how messy it is while saying, “…condoms really are the best protection….”


Suppose your group had an agreement to “treat everyone with respect”, yet the group facilitator does not consistently address name calling or covert disrespect.

In general, direct verbal communication is better than indirect verbal communication because it leaves less room for misunderstanding.

Direct non-verbal communication is generally better than indirect non-verbal communication, again because there is less room for miscommunication.

The best approach is to use both direct verbal and direct non-verbal approaches and to make sure your indirect verbal and indirect non-verbal messages match your direct messages: that is, say (and do) what you mean and mean what you say and do!

Bringing it all together

You communicate verbally and non-verbally, directly and indirectly. You have to pay close attention to all four of these when you are trying to communicate, and you have to be sure that your indirect and non-verbal communication isn’t undermining your goals by inadvertently communicating something you don’t intend—like reinforcing a stereotype or condoning harassing behaviors.

Moreover, you have to pay EVEN MORE attention to them when trying to understand someone else. Remember, other people do not always communicate directly, and when they don’t, it’s up to you to clarify, otherwise misunderstandings, arguments and other bad things can happen in your relationships.

Effective communication involves your mouth and your body, your words and your actions!

Featured Resource

DIV'N: How to communicate using your mouth and your body

Did you know that you say more with your body than with your mouth? Galena discusses how to best use verbal and non-verbal...

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