Taking Time for Intentional Questions in Your Practice by Jenna Sethi

Jenna Sethi

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? 

Lessons Learned

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. 

Rad Resources

Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org . aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

1 thought on “Taking Time for Intentional Questions in Your Practice by Jenna Sethi”

  1. Hi Jenna,
    Thank you so much for sharing your blog post. I definitely agree with you that taking time for intentional questions can help build a trusting relationship between evaluators and the target population. These relationships can help participants feel more comfortable and valued during interviews.

    Often times, people skills aren’t discussed when talking about evaluations but they are so important, especially when working with youth and vulnerable populations. You mention asking highs and lows and I think that is such a great way of acknowledging your students and building those relationships. I am an elementary school teacher and do quick check-ins with my students, at first, I got really short responses but as the year went on, we had long conversations that helped me understand where my students were coming from and their experiences. I think this strategy translates well to evaluators and focus groups/interviews.

    During these unprecedented times, we need to be checking in with others. So many people are facing numerous challenges that a simple “How are you doing?” can go a long way in supporting people to feel comfortable during interviews. You mention: “take time for questions that allow people to be their full selves” (Sethi 2021). This statement really resonated with me; I do believe that when conducting evaluations, they can be awkward and become almost robotic. Asking personalized questions can really help an interviewee give authentic answers. I think evaluators have an important role in supporting members in feeling heard and valued. Asking intentional questions to ease into an interview or focus group would do just that. I also believe these check-in type questions could gather meaningful data for the evaluation at hand.

    I really appreciate you addressing the “human” side of evaluations and how building relationships through check-in, check-out questions can support gathering of significant data. Your final statement: “Good questions are the ones that allow participants to be the experts of their own experience” (Sethi 2021) is something that I will hold on to not only in the evaluation field but also in my classroom when I am checking in with students. I think your statement can hold value to people working in any field that requires interacting with others.


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