Have you ever had a conversation with your teenager and found it less than engaging?
As a youth pastor, I feel like one of the biggest hurdles in ministry for my team is figuring out of to get students to open up. Making matters worse, if you’re like me, the tendency is to talk at people rather than to engage with them. Are there practical techniques for helping people open up?
This weekend I powered through an audiobook that was really helpful. It’s The Coaching Habit by Michael Stanier. I love the subtitle: Say Less, Ask More and Change the Way You Lead.
In this book he offers seven questions that are key to helping cultivate dialogue. I want to offer three of them in somewhat re-vamped forms for the context of discipling teenagers.
01 What’s on your mind?
This question is what we call an opener. Opener questions open the door to a dialogue. This question is supreme. Why?
First, it’s open-ended. There’s no agenda. It provides space for open-ended dialogue based on what the other party is concerned with. People love talking about what interests them. Often our questions are too directed. We want to know about something specific so we target that thing in our question. That can close conversation down because the other person isn’t ready for the topic. This question on the other hand is open ended enough to get the juices flowing on their end. It’s focused on what they care about and gives them the freedom to walk into the dialogue on their terms.
Second, it’s not too open-ended. By saying “What’s on your mind?" rather than “What’s up?” you probe what they are genuinely interested in, and target something in them that's worth talking about. We give vague responses to vague questions. "How are you doing?” for instance is a non-question in our culture. You’re offering people an opt-out of the conversation by even saying it. You’ll get the response “Pretty good.” Which is not what you want. Instead, probe what interests your teen and they’ll more likely open up about that.
But the begs the question: What do you do if they give a short answer?
The next question can help.
02 Yeah, what do you mean by that?
If the first opener question gives the teen the opportunity to share what matters to them, this question is exploratory in nature in order to draw them out. “Yeah, what do you mean by that?" is the key to keep them talking. You can do this question multiple times when the response is minimal.
This type of question has one main goal: to invite the teen to keep on going. You do so with the two key ingredients to this question: affirmation and investigation. You encourage them with "Yeah" and draw them out with "what do you mean" or even "what do you think about that".
Here’s a few tips:
Replace “Yeah” with any other affirming language. The point of “yeah” is to affirm. By affirming what you’ve heard you encourage the speaker. But you should adapt this word to what is necessary to affirm in context.
Start by repeating their previous thought. This shows you’re actively listening.
Don’t get frustrated. This is an invitation to keep elaboration, not a venting of frustration. This question, when asked in a happy tone, can woo others into deeper dialogue.
Repeat at least three times. This is a great habit to form.
Hopefully by the third or fourth exploratory question we’ve established an actual topic. If we’ve done our job right, now you’ve opened a can of worms. There’s more problems then answers. How do we help teens start thinking about their ambitions or problems from God’s perspective?
03 What’s the core issue to you?
Here’s the key: don’t jump to solving problems or giving advice. Instead ask a narrowing question. A narrowing question helps them cut through the drama, themselves and learn to think as a disciple on their own.
This question in particular has two powerful dynamics!
First, it focuses on one thing. That’s why we use the word core. “The core of the issue" is more helpful wording than, say, “the root of the issue” because root is focused on the origin but core focuses on what matters. We can’t solve everything, but if we deal with the core thing we’re making big progress.
Second, it’s very inviting. Studies show that when you add “to you” to any question it makes human beings more apt to answer well. "To you" feels safe, more personal, and allows teens to let their guard down and be honest.
They even tried this on math tests. By adding the word “you” to math questions on exams kids got the answer right more frequently. Wow! There are serious psychological realities at play. Why not employ those as you disciple your kids?
Questions are powerful. They are powerful in discipling teens. No one made disciples like Jesus. Jesus asked hundreds of questions in the Gospels. We should too. I'll finish by sharing a story:
One of our students asked me to meet their friend who was opposed to Christianity. He wanted me to sit and dialogue with her and explain Jesus. I thought, man what’s that going to do? Before this I’d been shaped by a book called “Questioning Evangelism” all about evangelizing through question asking.
All three of us sat in a coffee shop one afternoon. I didn’t preach. He brought up faith, and I asked about her thoughts. I kept asking questions. By then end of the conversation she was intrigued. I don’t think I really shared anything of value. But the two of them talked after we left and next thing I know she’s getting baptized. She leads in our ministry today. That’s the power of questions. God uses our questions to move in people’s hearts for His purposes.
Let’s say less, ask more, and have a bigger impact.