Hi! My name is Jenna Sethi (she/her), Founder & Principal Consultant of Informed Change. I am an applied qualitative researcher and evaluator helping (mostly) youth-serving organizations to achieve their goals by centering stories as data for change. I am also a community faculty member in the Youth Studies program in the School of Social Work at the University of Minnesota.
When I began my career first as a youth worker over 20 years ago, I found that the simplest way to build relationships with young people was to start by asking questions. “Highs and lows” were a common way to begin most group discussions. Having space to share joys and challenges in life isn’t just important for youth. I have found it incredibly important for my college students (and adults) as well who have faced myriad challenges through the pandemic. Many shared that they had professors who never asked how they were doing through the entire 2020-2021 school year and it made them feel depressed and unmotivated. That alone should remind us to take time for questions that allow people to be their full selves. In fact, on the first day of class I tell my students, “I don’t expect you to have all the answers, but I want you to ask good questions.”
What makes a good question? And, what are different ways questions can become more central to our practice? Many of you are probably thinking, “Well, all I do is ask questions, I’m an evaluator.” This is true, but how often do we ask questions intentionally designed to make others feel heard? Like they belong?
Intentional Beginnings and Endings Transform Meetings into Conversations
We often have limited time as evaluators and researchers with our partners and clients. We want to maximize our time during that face-to-face or Zoom half hour meeting. We need certain questions answered to move our projects forward, and so logically, we center our questions on answers we need to move aspects of our work forward. Maybe we begin the meeting with a quick “how are you?” before “getting down to business.” Yet, an intentional check in and check out question can do wonders for priming deeper thinking and it doesn’t have to take a lot of time. I often use questions such as “What’s giving you energy today?” or “What’s the last thing that you read or watched that made you think new thoughts?” These kinds of questions can ground and connect the group.
Interviews and Focus Groups are the Intervention Sometimes
In the last ten years of conducting interviews and focus groups with diverse youth across the country I have learned that for many young people, this experience is often the first time they feel heard by an adult. I often ended interviews with the question, “What was it like for you to be in the interview today?” Many young people noted they felt like they could “say what they really meant,” or that they “didn’t feel judged.” Another question I would ask was, “How are you feeling at the end of this interview in one word?” I often heard words such as, “grateful,” “thoughtful,” or “happy.” We design interviews and focus groups to understand more about our evaluation or research questions, but we are often creating spaces that change how participants think about themselves.
One answer (but it’s really a question): Good questions are the ones that allow participants to be the experts of their own experience.
- The Art of Powerful Questions – this article demonstrates how intentional questions can generate key insights and ignite change.
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