One of my main goals is to help adults better understand, relate to and connect with teens in order to positively impact their lives. Because of that, this is the second post in a series focusing on how to connect with teens based on the Teen Voice 2010 study from the Search Institute and Best Buy Children’s Foundation. In this study, they shared a list of “10 tips from Teens to Adults” that outlined how to best connect with teens and what they look for in a caring adult relationship. In my first post I focused on the first tip, “Look at us,” and shared examples of how I have done this in my work with teens. I also provided some tips for youth workers and parents. Today I will share practical examples of how I connected with teens using Tip #2.
Tip #2: Spend time talking with us. Ask open-ended questions. Build conversation.
I have to admit that when I first started working with youth, asking open-ended questions was very difficult for me. I was comfortable with the “How’s it going?” type questions or “What are your hobbies?” but getting deeper than that was tough for me. When I was serving as an adventure guide out in Washington, I had fellow guides and counselors that could ask just the right question that would lead to an hour-long conversation with a teen. I often sat by quietly in amazement at what seemed to come so naturally to some of the other guides.
But, like anything, practice and a few good resources helped me grow and become more comfortable asking questions of teens. What worked for me was a game called The Ungame. It is the simplest game in the world and turned out to be one of the best games to get teens talking in groups. You pass the deck around and each person picks a card. Each card in the deck has a simple question on it. Then you go around and each person answers the question. Simple right?
The deck of cards is divided into two categories. Category one cards are more lighthearted questions such as “Talk about your favorite sport and why you like it” or “In what ways does TV influence your life?” Category two cards are a little more deep or serious, such as “Which of your senses do you value the most?” or “What kind of emergency scares you the most?”
I would always keep The Ungame on my desk and use it as an icebreaker with various small group meetings. Starting with the category one cards was a great way to begin to get to know each other better and form connections. I would find that these random questions would allow teens to then open up about their passions or their deepest fears. And because the questions came from a deck of cards and not me, they were more likely to answer.
I remember one time in particular when I was taking a group of teens to a leadership conference and we had a four- to six-hour van ride. After a few rounds of arguing over what music to play I mentioned that I had The Ungame in my bag. The teens, probably 8–10 in all, were very excited and started facilitating the game by themselves. They decided that since they had played the game previously as a group that they would change up our rules: for every card that was drawn, we would go around and each person would answer the question. They played the game for what felt like three hours. It was great because I barely did anything but drive and listen. It was the quickest drive with teens in my life and I felt like by the time we arrived at our destination, the teens truly knew each other and had developed a deeper appreciation of and trust for each other.
The cool thing about a game like The Ungame is that you can set it up how ever you’d like. If the group is still relatively new, start with category one cards and not allow any questions or comments. If the group has been around each other and demonstrates that they are comfortable with each other, use category two cards and allow people to ask follow-up questions to others’ responses.
Using a tool like The Ungame helped me become more comfortable asking teens questions that truly mattered. I ended up realizing that many of them were waiting for someone to ask them deeper questions and allow them to share their thoughts, feelings and struggles. I realize now that I had more anxiety over asking these questions than they had in responding to me. Now I really enjoy asking teens questions.
Tips for Youth Workers and Parents:
- Be prepared. Some people are great at asking questions in the moment, but if you are like me this can be difficult. Spend time thinking and even writing down open-ended questions and conversations starters for the groups or teens you interact with. Now, I don’t recommend changing a conversation just to ask your question. Try to fit questions in the conversation or use them when there is a lull.
- Listen to what they are saying and follow up. Once the conversation ends, think about a follow-up question you could ask next time you see them. This shows that you were listening and that you truly care. I sometimes dealt with over 100 teens a day and would often jot down little notes of conversations I have with certain teens to help me remember them later.
- Have a favorite or go-to question with a purpose. I was mentoring a teen through the court system and found it hard to create conversation, especially around some of the issues he needed help and guidance with. So I began asking him “What good choices did you make this week?” each time I saw him. At first he had trouble answering and I would have to dig a little deeper. But after a year of weekly meetings he would come up to me answering the question before I even had a chance to ask it. This guided our conversation and also brought his positive choices to the forefront of our conversation and his mind instead of the negative choices that he was accustomed to talking about.