Three words every young person wants to hear

I don’t know about you, but I often find myself in conversations with young people that bump along awkwardly and end abruptly. As one of our ministry volunteers recently shared, “I am apparently terrible at getting more than one-word answers in conversation with most of the guys.” Can you relate?

Perhaps this is because good conversations tend to be elusive in a society that is relentlessly self-focused. We haven’t had good listening modeled well for us, and in turn we struggle to offer that gift to others. We don’t even know how to ask a follow-up question that generates something more than minimalist vocabulary.

Most of us who are parents also struggle with conversational momentum with our own adolescent kids. If you find yourself in the same “How was your day?” rut as the rest of us, let’s just go ahead and confess together that we are desperate for better language when we connect with our family after work and school.

"Tell me more"

Before Steve Argue was formally part of our team at FYI, he was a great dialogue partner. One of the phrases he has championed for years when it comes to conversations with young people is a simple three-word invitation:

Tell me more.

Memorize those words right now.

“How was your baseball game this weekend?”

“Good.”

“Cool.”

That’s as far as we usually get. But what might happen if instead we offered:

“Oh yeah? Tell me more!”

Of course, we might still get a three-word answer. But sometimes it opens enough of a crack to peer inside the elusive experience of the reserved teenager. And with emerging adults who may be jaded by how little adults actually seem to want to know about them, “Tell me more” can be a relational gamechanger (tweet that).

Once we asked Steve about the phrase “Tell me more” and why it’s a common prompt in their family to generate better conversations. He shared,

I think we need to remember as parents that the first question isn’t as important as the second or third question. A first question usually comes from our own agenda—we want information, clarity, or context. Second and third questions are responsive questions that emerge from the conversation. They show our kids how well we’re listening and really seeking to understand, rather than just interrogate.

I realized when our daughters went to college that I had to learn to talk with them differently. My job wasn’t to check up on them—Where were you last night? When did you get in? Did you finish your homework?—My questions had to become ones of discovery—What was the best part of your week? What class is inspiring you? What do you like or not like about your professors?

Maybe for us, “Tell me more” is more of a posture than a solo question!

Brilliant.

To help you remember these three key words in your upcoming conversations, our team designed a few smartphone wallpapers to dress your tech! Enter your email address to receive these in your inbox right away. 

Rebekah’s story

My friend Rebekah is a youth pastor who recently became a young adult pastor. She serves at First United Methodist Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a downtown church that, like many, has struggled over the years to connect effectively with young adults in the community, even while seeing growth in youth ministry.

Rebekah heard Steve share the phrase “Tell me more” as a way to empathize with young people on their journey of emerging into adulthood, one of the core commitments that we discovered in our Growing Young research. This phrase became a catalyst and a rallying cry for Rebekah’s church, so much so that they actually painted the words on a wall facing out toward the community.

I asked her why they were so compelled by the words “Tell me more,” and Rebekah shared the following story. We were so moved by this response that we invited Rebekah to share this story with a group of leaders gathered for our Growing Young Cohort, and I asked if she’d be willing for us to share her story here with you.

Here’s why Rebekah’s church zeroed in on “Tell me more,” and what they did about it.

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Listening well is such a big, important deal to me.

I think it basically boils down to empathy through a transfer of power. It’s closing your mouth when you are the person in power in an interaction and transferring power by requesting the other to tell you more—about whatever it is they want to tell you more about. I think about this all the time as the wife of an immigrant, a youth worker, a young adult, and a woman in a traditionally male field.

You’ll never find out what those who have less power are thinking or really experiencing unless you give them the power to tell you, and unless you stop talking.

People are desperate to be known. Youth group makes me sad sometimes when I watch the ways kids cloy to be worthy of noticing. Who can notice others when everyone is so desperate to get their own insecurities met? What a gift to be the person who focuses attention on the other and says, “I want to know you. Tell me everything.”

I think Jesus does that for us. Scripture invites us to pour out our hearts (Psalm 62:8). God is always wanting more of me, in whatever words I want to use to make myself known. Always inviting, even though he doesn’t need me to say the things in order to be aware of them.

“Tell me more” are the words I think everyone longs to have addressed to them, no matter the lifestage. They are words that seem to slow down time by taking the person in front of you seriously, and listening to what unfolds in that time.

They are words of with. Not of solving.

Young adults need with-ness if they—we—are going to be able to solve our stuff. “Tell me more” is a reminder to be quiet, be interested, and be present.

I am a young adult. So when my lead minister, Jessica, moved me into the position of young adult minister this year, I was a little bit unsure—excited, but very aware of my inability to lead from the position of someone who has navigated all this stuff already, because, well, I haven't. I brought this up with Jessica at the beginning, and she told me to learn by reading, studying other churches, finding out what training is available, and most importantly, by listening. “Train this congregation how to reach your age group. Ask your age group what they need from their church. Say, ‘Our church is ready to hear us. What do we want to tell them?’ I want you to lead from the ‘we’ position.”

I immediately found that it can be awkward to ask someone point-blank what they need—especially if they are not used to answering the question. I started a lot of conversations with exactly the words Jessica gave me: “Your church is ready to hear you. What do you want to tell them?” and got a lot of, “Um, I don’t know. Maybe Sunday school?”

I realized that was kind of an overly direct approach.

So for the past month and a half I have been asking students to help me with tasks related to their interests and the church’s needs (social media, video production, artistic creation, etc.) and asking all about their lives and interests while we work together. If they give me any space at all, I am asking them to tell me more. I’m also meeting young adults for coffee all the time and asking the same sorts of things: Tell me your story. Tell me more.

I’m learning a lot as young people slowly unfold what they are scared of, what they hope for, and what sorts of things they are jaded about. One of my fundamental beliefs is that a lot of people will tell you their hurts, hopes, fears, and dreams if you are not joking (or lying) when you say you want to hear them. Then you both can go from there, and I think God is present there.

So I have been listening and paying careful attention, and I have 47 pages of notes so far from young adults (and a few older adults) answering the request to tell me more. I changed all the names and read three pages of what I’m learning to our ministry team in an effort to listen together.

I remember hearing Dr. Argue say that “Tell me more” are the three most loving words in the English language, and I remember when I heard that thinking, “He’s right. I am dying to be asked that.” When we assume we know the other person without first doing the work of listening, we risk missing the other person.

I remember visiting a church my first semester of college. I would have gone home with anyone who asked me to lunch afterwards, or made conversation with anyone who asked me what my name was, or accepted advice from anyone who told me what to major in and gave me a compelling reason, but no one did that day. I think the older people assumed I had friends, and my peers didn’t even see me because they were as self-focused as I was in that moment. In that time of transition, I was desperate for a relational foothold and didn’t know how to make it for myself.

I also remember the times people have taken time for me. I feel like I remember every single one of those times because they were so formational and so longed for. At each transition point, I wanted someone to be with me—not to solve me or my issues, but just be with me and ask what I was thinking or experiencing.

One person who offered me that kind of time was the elderly security guard at the gym where I worked in college. He would ask a few questions and then stare at the door or security screen while I rambled on about why I was choosing this or that major and what causes made my blood boil. Sometimes he would give feedback, but mostly he would just listen and say that I was going to be someone in the world, and to keep working towards that end. If you asked me who has had my back as I have struggled into adulthood, I would say his name, because he listened, encouraged my personhood, and didn’t judge.

So now that I am considering how to train the congregation to reach people in my age group, I am noticing these themes of empathy and co-creation. If we can take one another seriously, if we can believe that each generation has a valid story and is deeply capable of offering something to the community for the sake of the kingdom, and if we are able to receive from each other, then we’re pretty much there in my mind.

But how do we begin to get there?

We have a building that is close to our primary church structure but physically separate. Two sides of that building are glass, and face downtown Tulsa. Looking out towards 10th street, you can see Tulsa Community College. Looking out the other side, towards Main Street, you can see First United Methodist’s main church building. There is a wall facing Main Street about two feet away from the glass window. It’s right by the stoplight where a good portion of the congregation waits when they are coming and going, along with others passing through this part of the city.

Jessica said to me, “That wall is a canvas. It has to be understood. Whoever looks at that wall needs to think, ‘This church cares about young adults’.” But writing, “Hey Tulsa, we care about young adults!” on the wall is not a great idea. So we wrote the three most loving words instead.

If people can invite each other to “Tell me more” and build that into their regular conversations, we will be moving towards empathy. The idea of the mural is to embed empathetic language into our minds so that it will flow naturally in conversation with people who seem really different, in this case young adults. When you don’t know where to start in conversation, you can start there. We want, as a church, to start there with young adults in our community. So the mural is a teaching tool, a prompt, and a request. We really do want to know more.

I texted a young adult who was involved in our church as a high schooler. I said, “I have a canvas for you, if you’re interested. It needs to be bold, seeable through the glass from the perspective of a car, and it needs to say, ‘Tell Me More’. This is all about working together to create the space we want to see for young adults in downtown Tulsa. I think these are the words people long to be asked, so we're asking through our space. You can totally say no, but I hope you say yes.”

That was it. He did the rest.

Tell me more. And more.

We all need safe spaces in our lives where we hear the equivalent of “Tell me more” from another person or group. Our deep longing to be heard and known can only be fulfilled by experiencing others who are willing to go to those places with us, truly seek understanding, and offer presence. Because as Steve reminds us, it’s more than a question, it’s a posture.

What other “Tell me more” phrases have you found useful in conversations?

More resources for getting—and keeping—your conversations going with young people:
Six tips for talking with teenage girls
How to talk to boys … and get them to talk back