In my first job after college I was a staff writer at a small newspaper. I had to be more aggressive than was normal for me, which at times was extremely uncomfortable. I had to ask a lot of questions and in the beginning it was a struggle to know what to ask, and to get people to answer. Many interactions felt like nails on a chalkboard.
Over time and through the struggle, I began to enjoy asking questions, being inquisitive, and investigating different situations. It began to spill unintentionally into my personal life, and even now, Nick says I’m good at figuring things out, which makes it hard to surprise me. And that is usually due to asking a multitude of questions.
Asking questions has also turned me into a better listener than I ever was before. It’s helped me train my ears to lead my mind in digging deeper, paying attention to subtleties, and at times picking up on things that could be easily overlooked. I’ve learned firsthand what asking good, thoughtful questions, and listening carefully to answers can accomplish. It’s something that isn’t essential only to journalism, but student ministry as well.
Asking the right questions will help you be a better leader for your students as it will allow you to uncover things that otherwise remain hidden. It will also help your students feel cared for, heard, and understood. But how do you ask the right questions? Keep reading for some of my suggestions born out of over a decade of question-asking.
DON’T ask questions that require only a “yes” or “no” answer.
Unless you have a great follow-up question, that is. But even then, I recommend avoiding yes/no questions all together, especially if your intent is to uncover more about how your students are thinking and feeling. They still may give you a one-word answer, but nothing serves up a conversation-ender better than asking something that only requires a shake of the head or “yeah.” What you want is to get students talking.
Think through other ways to ask the question that will require students to respond with a sentence or two at the least, but could open the door for more. For example, instead of asking a student if they like going to school, ask how they feel about their classes and extracurricular activities. Or instead of making a statement and asking students if they agree, ask them what they think about the statement, or if they would change it. It may be a bit of an adjustment at first, but the more time you spend on it, the easier it will become to ask questions that lead your students to share more.
DO ask follow-up questions that show you are listening.
This is a big one for uncovering more information, getting to know your students, or leading them into self-guided discussion. (More on self-guided discussion here.) In order to keep the conversation going and encourage your students to share more, you must listen actively, purposefully, and intently. Personally, nothing makes me want to stop talking more than the realization that someone isn’t listening. Unfortunately, in my experience this happens more with pastors and church leaders than any other group. It also happens when people are distracted by their phones, too busy worrying about something else, or listening only enough to know when it’s their turn to take over the conversation.
If you struggle with listening, start intentionally practicing it with a friend, co-worker, or spouse. Ask them to tell you a story from their childhood or their day. Watch their face for different expressions, their hand gestures, envision the story as though you are there with them, and pay attention to the details. Don’t allow your mind to wander, maintain eye contact, don’t interrupt, and actively think about what you are hearing. When they have finished speaking, choose a few things that stood out to you and ask follow-up questions about them. You may want to focus on the speaker’s feelings about the event, how it impacted their life, or what they wish had happened differently.
If you want to make others in your life feel valued, intentional listening is a great place to start. It will also help you get to know your students on a level that moves beyond short, surface-y conversations. You have the power to do these things in how you listen and the questions you ask as a result.
DON’T feel the need to answer every question.
It drives me crazy when a youth leader asks a question during small group time and immediately begins answering it themselves. You may have the right answer, and it might be really great, but don’t be afraid of a little silence from your group. Sometimes people need time to think through a coherent answer before speaking. If students aren’t answering, rephrase the question before answering it yourself.
During discussions, students may ask questions of you as well. Don’t be afraid to use a question as a response in these situations, especially with the intent of guiding students to uncovering answers or conclusions for themselves. We have a unique opportunity to help our students think deeply about their faith, and many times that involves personal wrestling with Scripture, our beliefs, and our culture. Rather than simply providing answers, help students build the skills they need to think carefully and critically, and arrive at their own conclusions.
Depending on the type of question a student asks, the best response may be a question in order for you to uncover their motives or heart behind what they are asking. Jesus did this frequently, and as He already knew people’s hearts, I think His question-responses were to help them think about their motives. Whether your students are trying to test you, be antagonistic, or are genuinely curious, you can use questions to help guide the discussion and uncover intent. And if you don’t know an answer, be honest and tell them, but then work on discovering the answer to share later.
DO ask questions that uncover feelings and emotions.
If you want to understand your students, get to the heart of the matter, and help them feel known, look to discover their feelings and emotions. Asking students how they feel about the things going on in their life will help you connect with the heart behind their behavior. This can help you begin to uncover why your students may be acting or speaking in a particular manner. Things may look a certain way at first glance, but as you learn more, you may begin to see the whole picture. Don’t assume that you know who a student is or is not; give them the benefit of the doubt, and make space for them to open up.
Every human being is amazingly complex, and each of us struggle with different things. Students may be dealing with internal struggles like anxiety or a poor self image, or they may be experiencing hurt and abuse from family or friends. Until you take the time to ask questions and carefully listen to answers, you will never get beyond the surface. Dig into how your students are feeling, what is happening in their lives, and be a safe space for them to share and be loved. Help them see that they are unique, interesting, and needed.
DON’T force it.
As with anything, use moderation when asking questions. If students aren’t responding, or if they refuse to share much, don’t keep asking more questions. Give them space and time. They may need to get used to you and determine whether you are a safe person or not. Pestering them with a barrage of questions may cause them to retreat further. So work to be perceptive as you ask questions, and start slow.
If you have a student who isn’t particularly communicative, start by asking them one basic question each time you see them, like “how was your day?” Show them that you are consistently interested and available. If their answers begin to get longer and more personal, try asking a few more to see if they are willing to share. Build trust by remembering the things they share, keeping confidences, and honoring their autonomy. Don’t be afraid to say, “Can I ask this?” before sharing your question. If they say no, respect their decision and don’t pry.
DO remain fully present.
This is part of listening well, but in our distracted day and age, it deserves a second mention. When you are interacting with your students, remain fully present with them. This is especially important if you are the “main man/woman” (i.e., the lead youth pastor, church pastor, etc.). It can be easy as the up-front leader to be in a hurry the whole time you’re at youth group, or to act like whoever you are is more important than who they are. Take a step back and remember that you are there for the students, not yourself, not your platform, and not your schedule, as important as it may be to stay on time.
To build equity into your interactions with your students, you must be dialed into them. This doesn’t mean you neglect everything or everyone else, but you give them an allotment of undistracted time in which you stop, make eye contact, listen intently, and ask a question or two. If you need to move on, don’t look at your phone or watch. Instead, explain why/what you have to do, and if possible, invite them to join you so you can continue talking. Remember that your students are important and valuable, and they need to perceive that from you. There are enough people in the world who blow off our students, let’s not be those people.
A few questions you can use:
- What’s one good thing that happened this week and what’s one bad thing that happened?
- How does that make you feel?
- Why do you think that is/why do you think that’s true?
- How would you change that?
- What do you want to do when you feel that way?
- Who do you listen to the most/who influences you?
- How can I help?