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  • Dawn Spragg

Five Questions

I frequently use videos in my practice to encourage teens to talk about themselves, to explore their feelings, and to help them identify paths forward. One of my favorite videos to use is this YouTube clip of Dean James Ryan's prepared remarks to graduates of Harvard's Graduate School of Education in May of 2016, in which he encourages his students to ask five questions of themselves regularly as a way of living a more fulfilling life.

Dean Ryan’s 5 Essential Questions

1. Wait, what?

2. I wonder (followed by why or if?)

3. Couldn’t we at least?

4. How can I help?

5. What truly matters (to me)?

These are also great questions for parents to ask their teens. So often I hear from mothers and fathers who are struggling to communicate with their adolescents. They complain that they can’t get more than a monosyllabic answer from their teen , or maybe they’re just getting a loud radio silence. And what I say to them is: why not try some new questions?

Wait, what? Dean Ryan’s first questions is a perfect starting place for a conversation with your teen. It communicates a desire to understand, without judgement. Question #2, I wonder why or if, helps you connect with what your teenager is thinking, and also helps you clarify their thought process. Question #3, Couldn’t we at least?, leads the conversation towards compromise. And Question #4, How Can I Help?, expresses a tacit confidence in your teens’ ability to manage whatever sticky situation they may have found themselves in.

My favorite question though is Question #5 - What truly matters to me? When we are angry with our teens or disappointed in them, it is easy to make accusatory statements. “You are careless." “You are lazy." But these are barriers to good communication. If, however, you say, “What matters to me is that you are respectful”, or "What matters to me is that you are safe," you begin the conversation on more neutral ground, and it is more likely to be productive. It is also a way in which you can share your priorities with your teens even as they are deciding what is important to them.

What do you think? Are there any questions that you find work well with your teens? I’d love to hear about them.

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