The question matters more than the answer.

We often think that we need to talk. We want to give students the right information, powerful insights, nuggets of deep truth that will transform their lives. But have you ever realized that sometimes the question is way more powerful than your answer could ever be?

In communicating with young people, two things are way more important than talking: listening and asking the right questions. And these two are closely related, because without listening asking questions is useless, and good listening will help you ask the right questions.


There are three types of questions that will help you to truly understand young people in conversations: factual questions, clarifying questions and why-questions. Here’s how to use them:

Factual questions

Factual questions are the what, when, how type of questions you almost automatically ask to get a complete picture of what someone is telling you about an event. They are meant to get the other person to explain in more detail what happened exactly, in what order and how. These are very helpful especially at the beginning of a conversation to gather the facts. Here’s an example: `What happened after he ran out? Did he ever come back?’

Clarifying questions

Clarifying questions are the questions you ask to make sure you’ve understood the other. They can be summaries formulated as a question (`So you’re upset because he never called you back, is that right?’) or `proper’ questions (`He never called you back?’). If you are talking to someone and what they are saying is not clear to you, keep asking clarifying questions until it is. Make sure you understand what they are really saying before moving on.

Why questions

Why questions intend to dig deeper into the feelings and reasonings of the young person you’re talking to. You don’t just want to know what has happened, you also want to know why and how he or she is feeling. So you ask why questions. `Why did you decide to run away?’ or `How did it make you feel that your mom forgot to pick you up?’.

Usually, you won’t get to the core of the `why’ with just one question. Car maker Toyota developed a technique for instance called the `five why’s’ to get to the root cause of a problem or a defect in a car. This technique is focused on a process analysis and simply keeps asking why five times to get to the real problem in the process.

[1] That’s how many `why’s’ it takes to dig deep enough and not be satisfied with superficial solutions. So don’t be satisfied with the first answer to a why question but keep digging until you feel you’re at the root of the problem.

You have to be subtle however, because it’s exactly these type of questions that can make people defensive. If they are asked `why’ in a style that’s too confrontational and perceived as too `attacking’, teens will get defensive and you will get nowhere in your conversation. So make sure you `dig’ lovingly.

By asking these questions, you will help young people to understand themselves, their situation or their emotions better. In my experience, they are also more likely to act on what they have learned through answering these questions. That’s because research has shown that we are far more likely to remember concepts if we have discovered them ourselves, than when they were taught.

It can be frustrating to see a student struggle without offering all the answers. But answers are too easy for us, and too hard for the students. Help them discover the solution themselves by simply asking questions.

Because questions are far more powerful than your answers could ever be.

P.S. Interested in learning more about communicating with students? Check out my book: Beyond Small Talk: Connecting With Teenagers Through Conversations That Matter which offers more practical tips on communicating with teens effectively.
[1] Wikipedia, 5 Whys, url (April 2012)