At One Trusted Adult, we are on a mission to support and equip youth-serving professionals and parents with tools to build connections with young people. In this month’s blog post, we’re focusing on the power of questions as a communication tool that sparks conversation and gets the young people in your care talking!
As an awkward college kid, I was given invaluable advice by a mentor who told me that, when left in a room or on the sidelines of a game with parents or people I didn’t know, I should “Just ask questions—everyone loves to talk about themselves.” This one piece of advice has carried me through life and saved me in countless situations. When I began using this tactic for social survival, I did not expect that it would be key in my role as a parent and educator.
Questions not only help you understand another person’s perspective, they help the other person understand themselves. Asking guiding questions of young people, rather than laying out all the answers, solidifies their own experience, thoughts, and feelings—but this can be hard! When we feel we have answers to young people’s problems, we naturally want to tell them our solutions and ideas. Instead, we need to show great patience and allow space for discussion and questions.
A 2018 study out of Australia titled The Role of Trusted Adults in Young People’s Social and Economic Lives confirms that “talking not telling” is the way to build the strongest trust possible with youth. Researchers reported that relationships between young people and trusted adults “are linked to better physical and mental health among young people, fewer risky behaviors, and higher self-esteem” and that “trusted adults can have a beneficial impact on young people’s education and employment.” They also noted that the best way for adults to become trusted adults with profound impact is through their communication style: “The experience of talking not telling means that young people can seek the guidance they need for progressing through new formative life decisions, but this does not have to come at the expense of feeling like a child or of not getting the support they need.”
One of the best opportunities to use questions as a trusted adult occurs when a young person comes to you with a worry or concern. The script should go something like this: “Is there something you would like me to do to help? Or would you just like me to listen?” Providing a young person with this kind of agency and control in the relationship is an enormous aid in building trust. Recently, we heard from a father who shared this story:
When my daughter started telling me her boyfriend had just broken up with her, I began to give her all kinds of advice, and then I remembered your advice from the book, paused, and asked, “Is there something I can do to help, or do you just want me to listen?” With tears in her eyes, she said, “Dad, I would just like a hug.” This was a powerful bonding moment, and one I will never forget. The job of parenting is simpler than I was making it. I don’t have to have all the answers. I just need to practice asking better questions.
Trusted Adult Tips
If we practice good communication, including asking questions and listening, young people often don’t even notice that we are mentoring, coaching, advising, or guiding them. Sometimes our best work is invisible! As a parent, educator, or youth-serving professional, reflect on how often you are doing the talking when you spend time with a young person, and how often you are doing the listening.
Then do some research on two types of questions: motivational and restorative. Motivational questions come out of the work of motivational interviewing, and the founders of this work suggest questions like: How important is this to you? What will it take to achieve? What do you hope to gain? What will that look and feel like in the future? Restorative questions come out of the work of restorative justice and are typically used after another person shares a worry or concern, or when there has been a violation of a family or community rule. These questions sound like: What happened? Who was affected and how? How have you been affected? What needs to happen to make things as right as possible? Write some of these questions down and make them a part of your regular conversations with youth—and with everyone!
Our final tip for communicating with young people is to use these three words as often as possible: TELL ME MORE. Although this phrase is not a question, it elicits the same opportunity for connection. If you are not sure what to say or how to take the conversation with a young person further, simply say, “Tell me more,” and invite more of their voice into your discussion.