There are few things more frustrating than asking someone “How was you day?” and receiving a single word response like “Good!” or "Fine." Technically, though, (and this is a bummer...) that’s what you asked them.
How you ask questions can drastically shift the result, i.e. your conversations with coworkers, friends, and family! The professionals at SeriousFun camps and programs—staff members, counselors, and child life specialists—know this well. It’s why they intentionally create spaces and activities, such as Cabin Chat, that spark meaningful dialogue between campers.
Leveraging the expertise of SeriousFun staff, along with that of renowned author of Will Wise, we jotted down a few tips to improve your questions.
1. Skip Questions that Start with “Why”
When your camper returns home after their session, skip the why questions—which can come across as accusatory, interrogative, or judgmental—and start with what and how.
In his book, “Ask Powerful Questions”, Will Wise explains what happens when we drop the why: “Now the question is about the process and not about the person. There is less to personally defend against…[and] much more to talk about.” For example, the question "Why was horseback riding your favorite activity?" can have a much different tone than "What made horseback riding special?".
2. Get Specific
Try asking questions that target particular events or memories your camper can pull from. This helps avoid topics that seem too generic or broad to dive into in any real depth.
Once your camper has responded, good listening will help you pick up on what to ask next. Follow-up questions are a powerful way to show someone you’re listening and really care.
Start by reframing general why questions into ones like these:
- What was your favorite outdoor activity? What was neat about [ropes course]?
- What was most enjoyable about your cabin? What made [x] great?
- What was created during arts and crafts or wood shop? What does it look like?
- How was meeting new people? What did you enjoy about your new friend?
- How was trying new things at camp? What was [boating] like for the first time?!
- What was most challenging about your week?
3. Ask About Process, Not Person
Will Wise has another poignant observation about word choice: "When you create questions for which people will not feel the need to defend themselves, you will notice something else happening to your questions. The word 'you' will show up less. The word 'you' in a sentence may be perceived as a direct attack on the person (or persons) you are talking to, rather than what you are talking about."
When you remove why, the question becomes less about interrogating a person and more about exploring the process. Making conscious choices about the use of you in your questions takes this one step further.
Consider how the same question can sound drastically different: “What made you do [x]?” versus “What brought about [x]?” Think about which question you’d prefer to be asked!
You might notice, that in the above questions, we've removed you already. While it can be challenging to reshape your questions at first, practice will help create habit.
4. Ask Reciprocal Questions
Asking reciprocal questions is so common in social practice that you probably do this already. When someone asks “How are you?” it’s standard practice to return the question to the person you’re chatting with. When you don’t, you run the risk of them feeling under-appreciated or unheard.
If you camper is full of questions about your week when they return home, this can be a great way to engage in conversation about both of your experiences. Keep the conversation interesting by asking questions, sharing when asked, and really listening to what your little one has to say.
Note that while reciprocal questions are almost always good, reciprocal sharing has its time and place. While it’s important for building connection with your camper, doing it too frequently may not leave enough time for them to do the talking. Brené Brown breaks this down in a video on practicing empathy here.
5. Role Model the Conversations You Want
At the end of the day, perhaps the best way to create meaningful conversation is to role model it yourself. Ghandi famously said to “Be the change you wish to see in the world” so we'll adapt that to “Be the conversation you want to have with your camper…” (or maybe do both).
Whether you're looking to find out more about the activities they did at camp or the way they're feeling about school, thinking through the best approach to have meaningful conversations can make all the difference. Let them see you doing the same with other people, too!
Jacqueline loves nothing more than thinking outside the box and team spirit—cue never-seen-before icebreakers! By developing virtual and in-person learning opportunities for staff across the Network, she fosters collaboration near and far.
Do you have tips to share on talking with your child after camp? We welcome your thoughts and ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.