3 Keys To Meaningful Conversations with Students

By Dr. Greg Joiner • Fellowship Bible Church • Brentwood, TN • gjoiner@fbctn.org

Out of all the camps, messages, Bible studies, and small groups I’ve been a part of, the one-on-one conversations with students that that stand out.  I’m continually learning what it means to make each conversation count.  This doesn’t always come naturally.  Much like a fifteen-year-old learning to drive a standard transmission for the first time, conversations with young people begin awkwardly, and usually they end unexpectedly. One-word answers may easily become the norm.

Here are 3 keys I have discovered…

1. Stay Curious
Many of the volunteers and parents I work with approach conversations with teenagers like opening a bag of Jolly Ranchers in a library. Some just rip the wrapper off as fast as possible to get it over with, and others unwrap it so slowly that the sound of the wrapper annoys everyone in the room. They alternate between emotionally unavailable and intrusive. We have to be aware of when it is time to engage teenagers in conversations. We sometimes fail to realize that opening up a conversation with a teenager depends on their timetable, not ours. Just because we ask great questions doesn’t mean we are free from one-word answers. We can’t force interaction, which is why it is so critical we maintain a posture of curiosity with our kids. Curiosity makes us aware of when they want to enter a conversation, not when we want to. Curiosity is patient in relationship with teenagers. It doesn’t annoy everyone in the room. Curiosity communicates care; it says, “You matter more than my agenda.” Conversations with teenagers are not often on a schedule, which is why we must be ready to engage when it happens.

We all know our kids have things they want to talk about, sometimes complex and embarrassing things that make it hard for them to come to us as parents or youth workers. Therefore, when the door is opened to their hearts, we have to be curious with them. That means putting the book down, getting off the phone, and being aware that they are trying to tell us something. It is up to us to be alert and pay attention when that moment comes. When it does, the question is whether or not we are paying attention. My friend Lloyd Shadrach once shared with me how that moment comes for him when he picks his sixteen-year-old daughter up from her work. She is often ready to engage at that time—when the door to her heart is open—and Lloyd loves being curious with her about her day at work.

How curious are we about our teenagers? Do we even know what is going on in their world? Think about it for a moment. How did we feel the last time someone was curious about some part of our day or some aspect of our life? Did we feel affirmed in those moments? In the same way, we have to be curious with our teens because curiosity really does communicate care.

The most practical way to stay curious with young people is to use the simple phrase: “tell me more.” Curiosity relieves one of the pressure to ask redundant questions like “How was your day?” and “What did you do today?” Familiarity can stifle curiosity and lead to dead-end, superfluous questions that require only one-word answers—the kind teenagers dodge like a bullet. The next time students open up to us, that is our cue to stay curious and ask questions of discovery. It only takes three words to enter their world: “Tell me more.”

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2. Focus on the Person not the Problem
There is a “fixer” deep inside all of us. The moment young open up to us we feel this need to “fix” things by focusing on the problem and not the person. An empathic response comes naturally when we focus on the person.   Empathy is what both fuels and drives connection with young people.  Here’s a great example of a mother I met recently who put this 2nd key to effective communication into practice:

I recently did some work with a group of parents and youth workers just outside of New Orleans. We were talking about empathy and practicing active listening skills. I noticed one particular mother who had teared up about halfway through the session. The dots were connecting for her as we talked about the nature of empathy and what it does for our kids. As we spent some time talking outside of the group, she shared her daughter’s struggle with migraines. Migraines are of course quite debilitating, and in her daughter’s case they occur often.

The woman was a physician in the small town where she lived, and every day people come into her office looking for her to “fix” things. Her natural response with her daughter was to try and fix the migraines. She had learned how to be present as a physician, but not as an empathetic mother. Her requires her to focus on the problem.  This left her exhausted and feeling helpless. After a little conversation she decided the next time her daughter experienced a migraine she would move towards her not as a doctor but as an empathetic mother. The next morning I ran into her before our final session. She had a totally different countenance about her as she told me her daughter had come home from a weekend retreat with a migraine the previous night. She said she just held her daughter and told her she was so sorry her head was hurting. After about ten minutes her daughter said she was feeling so much better and even went back to the retreat to re-engage.

What happened was that this mother was feeling with her daughter. She fueled a connection and created a safe place for her to deal with her own physical pain. Instead of focusing on her daughter’s migraine (which is what a physician does), she focused on her daughter, thereby taking a step towards a healthy mother-daughter relationship. As you reflect back on the last conversation you had with a young person, did you focus on the person or the problem? Did you listen to all the details of the relational chaos or stress in their life, or did you listen beyond the words to what is going on inside?

3. Ask Powerful Questions
Beginning conversation with questions communicates that we do not assume to understand all the answers. With questions, we demonstrate we are not stereotyping the young people with whom we speak, and we are not lumping them in with all the other kids from their generation. It is precisely at this point in the conversation that we must be keenly aware of the tendency to give more information to young people than typically they require. They need great questions to help them formulate answers on their own. Great questions tend to promote reflection more effectively than merely providing additional knowledge and expertise. We need to sharpen our ability to ask great questions of young people.

The best way to make your questions more powerful is to open them up. In other words, ask OPEN questions not closed questions.

There is a pattern that develops in our interaction with young people over time where we continually ask closed questions. A closed question is one that can simply be answered with a yes or no. The actual skill we need to develop is asking more open questions in conversation with young people. Why do I refer to this as a skill? It is because asking does not come naturally in conversation. Here are a few examples of closed questions:

  1. Should you quit the football team?
  2. Do you think you made the right decision?
  3. Does your friend think the same way?

On the surface, these kinds of questions are not all that bad. In fact, they may lead to some good conversation and demonstrate genuine interest in young people’s lives. If we were to observe these three questions a little closer, however, we would notice that the “idea” behind the question is contained within the question itself. In other words, what normally happens when we ask a young person a question is that our idea, assumption, feeling, or opinion is embedded in the question. For example, in a conversation about money with a teenager, asking the question “Do you plan on borrowing money to do that?” clearly exposes the opinion that they should borrow money to do that. The answer is already embedded in the question. The first question, for example, carries the assumption that the young person should probably quit the football team, or at least quitting the team is a strong option. If we take one step back, however, we realize we are in a conversation about what to do with football in a young person’s busy life and schedule. The main idea, then, is what to do with football. How would we ask a more open question on this topic? Something like, What options do you see with football at this point? would offer more open options and possibilities. This changes the overall conversation by promoting reflection in the young person as opposed to a question that is designed to give more information.

This is also what makes a question closed and shuts down communication. Therefore, effective communication with young people is not so much the art of giving good answers as the art of asking good questions.

Editor Note:  This is an excerpt from RISER: A PRACTICAL TOOLKIT FOR STRENGTHENING YOUR RELATIONSHIPS WITH YOUNG PEOPLE – Dr. Greg Joiner a crash course on effective communication with students.    Our long-time interlinc youth ministry friend Dr. Chap Clark wrote the foreword to Greg’s book.

RISER is the way that author Greg Joiner invites adults to take the first steps in the direction of a young person.  Dr. Greg Joiner has written RISER to transform the way we communicate with our children and other young people. It all comes down to one thing. Communication. Some argue it is the bedrock of everything there is. It has been described as “the art of being understood.” The most sacred gift we offer another is the willingness and ability to gently step next to them in honest, respectful and authentic conversation. To talk. To listen. To know and be known. To engage, not as in a swordfight but in the way one would help a small child to cross a street. To be aware of entering into sacred space, where we take off our shoes approaching the holy ground of their most intimate treasure – their thoughts, their heart, their vulnerabilities and their insecurities.”


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