GUEST POST by Jonathan McKee. Jonathan has become a regular guest blogger on this site! He is the author of numerous books including the brand new Candid Confessions of an Imperfect Parent, as well as youth ministry books like Connect: Real Relationships in a World of Isolation. You can find his excellent blog here.
Is it just me, or do you sometimes struggle getting teenagers to open up and just talk?
I have this issue with my own teenagers. Conversations can drift toward the mundane.
“How was school?”
“Same as always.”
“Anything interesting happen today?”
“Nice talking with you!”
Youth workers probably have the same frustrations talking with teenagers that they first meet.
“What’s your name?”
“What school do you go to?”
“Play any sports?”
“Have you ever accidently killed a squirrel?”
Let’s face it. Teenagers have a PhD in one-word answers… if we don’t ask the right questions.
Here’s 5 tips I found that helped me get teenagers talking:
1. Don’t ask yes or no questions. If you do, then you know you’re gonna get a one word answer.
If you ask a teenager, “Was school fun today?” Chances are, you’re gonna hear the word “No.” Conversation over.
2. Don’t ask dull questions. Sure, if you’re just meeting a teenager you might need to ask their name and school, but don’t go the expected route and ask the typical, “Do you like it there?” (a yes or no question) Ask something that is a little unexpected.
“If you had to choose just one class, or one teacher, and you could ditch the rest, which would you choose?”
A question like this gives you insight into what subjects they like, what kind of adults they respect, plus it provides them with a fun element—picturing a world where they choose classes and ditch others!
But unexpected questions don’t always come easy… that’s why you always need to…
3. Think ahead. If you struggle getting teenagers talking, don’t try to think of something on the fly. Plan ahead.
Parents, don’t wait until you’re sitting at the dinner table to try to think of something to say. Youth workers, don’t walk up to a teenager and say the first thing on your mind. Think ahead. Use some resources if you have to. Which brings me to my next tip…
4. Don’t be afraid to use tools. One of the best relational tools is a well-placed question. As a parent who often finds himself trying to “break through the ice” with my own teenagers at the dinner table, I use an oldie but goodie:
“Everyone share your high and your low of the day. Youngest to oldest.”
We use this probably once a week. Sometimes we even modify it to just that, “the high and low of the week.”
In my parenting book I provide a bunch of these kinds of ice-breaker questions. Questions like:
“If you could go to any restaurant tonight and order any meal, where would you go and what would you order?”
“If you could go on vacation anywhere for a week, all expenses paid and bring whoever you want, who would you bring?”
You can learn a lot about your kids with questions like that. Their tastes, their friends… whether they’d bring you!
Youth ministry is the same way. Some of us struggle trying to “break the ice” when we are hanging out with a group of kids or leading a small group. Don’t hesitate to use resources like Doug’s Would You Rather books, or any his other ice-breakers. They can provide some really fun ways to get teenagers talking. Or consult books like my book, Connect, where I spend several chapters discussing how to get teenagers talking when you first meet them.
5. Use your eyes and ears before your mouth. I truly saved my best tip for last. Simply put: notice. Use your eyes to notice what shirt a teenager is wearing—it will tell you a lot. If they’re wearing a vintage Star Wars t-shirt, you can probably get them talking about nerdy topics for hours. If they’re wearing a Ben Roethlisberger jersey… they really need Jesus!
In the same way, if you hear a teenager talking about Facebook, cheer, or her new iPhone, chances are you won’t have to say much to get her talking about it. Notice what teenagers are excited about, ask them about it, and then you won’t have to do much talking at all. You might even wish you never got them started!
Remember, our teenagers really want to be heard. Sadly, they often are ignored by adults. So sometimes they just need to test the waters and see that we’re actually willing to listen.
There’s nothing magical about the tips above. They might take a little bit of warming up and some tweaks here and there. Just make an effort, demonstrating that you care and actually want to listen… the rest will fall into place.