The Language of Listening: How Powerful Questions Engage Young People

Young people have a reputation for being difficult to reach when it comes to building relationships with adults. They are often characterized as uncaring or aloof — uninterested in talking meaningfully with an authority figure from any area of their lives. While there is a hint of truth to this stereotype — they do require putting in a bit more effort at times — it is untrue that young people don’t care or are entirely unwilling to engage adults. We just have to approach them the right way.

There is one primary problem adults have when attempting to engage young people: we ask the wrong questions. Or worse, we don’t ask questions at all. Often, we lecture or talk “at” them without truly listening to their thoughts or emotions. Young people want to feel like their thoughts and feelings matter and are taken seriously. When we dismiss those thoughts and feelings or deem them incorrect, whether directly or indirectly, we are missing the opportunity to build trust in the relationship. No one wants to offer up a thought or feeling and be rejected, but it is especially the case with teens, who are still trying to determine who they are and what they believe.

If we do ask questions, we often get caught in a pattern of “yes-or-no” questions, which don’t encourage discussion, or we ask leading questions that include our own opinion alongside the question, i.e. “Do you think you should talk to your coach about that?” Teens can smell our underlying agendas from a mile away, and they’ll avoid those questions like the plague. 

The key is to ask open-ended questions that prompt discussion — and not to force them to go too deep, too fast. Deep questions require a foundational relationship first. They require a mutual trust that has been built up over time. If we have not built up this trust, teens are unlikely to be willing to reveal any significant insight into their honest thoughts and feelings.

Asking intentional, yet unbiased questions gives us the opportunity to truly listen without judgement or immediately offering our opinion. When young people do open up — however unexpected — our job is to simply listen. Affirmations like “that must have been hard” can go a long way, and the statement “tell me more” is a great way to ask an open-ended question without any added pressure to respond in a certain way.

Asking the right questions gives young people a voice, and allows us as adults to see their hearts — their thoughts, desires and emotions. By listening well, we build trust, and when we build trust, we build a foundation for a connected, valued relationship.

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