Getting to know someone on a deeper level requires knowing what to ask.
We sat on a blanket outside the dining hall, our bare feet dangling over the fabric’s edge.
Camilla was 13, roaring to start the 8th grade at Mount Vernon Middle School in less than a month. I was 26, director of a local middle school outreach ministry, at a summer camp as a counselor to her and a handful of other students that week. Despite my prompts asking her to tell me about herself, her family, her pets — questions that typically get responses from other early adolescents I knew, as children are generally less guarded than adults — she remained mute.
I was stumped.
My only assignment that day was to have a conversation with the girls in my cabin, but nothing I said seemed to work with her. Then I remembered my friend Anna’s “three questions.” Anna was so passionate about her work with middle school students that she’d spent her professional life tending to their unique needs: first as a youth pastor, then as a junior high guidance counselor and later as a teen therapist.
If anyone knew how to get the Camillas of this world to open up, it was Anna. I yearned to do the same.
“I have three questions for you,” I said, then took a deep breath. If this didn’t work, our conversation would remain entirely one-sided.
Who are you? Who are your friends? Where are you going?
The questions weren’t asked in rapid succession, we approached them one at a time, slowly. And, to my delight, they did pique Camilla’s interest. While she didn’t give me paragraphs of explanation like some of her peers might have, her one-word answers were a step in the right direction. That afternoon, something opened up in our friendship. Maybe she began to believe that I cared about her. Maybe she began to trust me.
It wasn’t until my experience with Camilla that I began asking those three questions to every middle-school student I met. Because when a young person is asked about her identity, her community, and what she wants to be when she grows up, something happens in her core.
She feels known. She feels understood. She feels heard.
And I venture to guess that, when given similar prompts, it’s the same for grown-ups as well.
Try the three questions after a move to a new community
A year or so ago, my family and I made the move from one side of the San Francisco Bay to the other.
Moving 25 miles inland may not seem like the biggest jump, but we knew we couldn’t rely on the same friendships as we had before. We knew we’d have to find our way around a new maze of freeways and streets and neighborhoods. We’d have to find new grocery stores and a new church and new playgrounds for our boys.
And we knew that eventually we’d have to find new people to call our own. But starting over is hard. Putting yourself out there, especially when you don’t know how other people are going to respond, is hard.
That’s when my neighbor Julie came into my life.
I kept hearing about her from a handful of folks on our block: Have you met Julie yet? You’ll love Julie — you should meet her! She has kids almost the same age as your sons. Meet Julie! But I wasn’t brave enough to go and knock on her door, at least not yet. So she took it upon herself.
I’d taken my boys down the hill to the neighborhood coffee shop. Mama needed her Brain Juice and they needed fresh-baked pineapple empanadas.
“Hi!” the stranger said to me.
“Um, hi?” I said back to her, not having a clue whose hand was outstretched in front of me.
“You’re Cara, right? I’m Julie, your neighbor …” She paused, hopeful that I’d recognize her name before she had to explain any further.
“Yes! Julie, yes, yes, yes!” I felt awkward in my excitement, but it didn’t matter in the least. We exchanged numbers and she invited me over a week later.
It wasn’t until I sat in her living room, sipping aromatic peppermint loose-leaf tea, that she asked me a variation of the questions I’d asked those middle school girls 10 years earlier.
She wanted to know who I was at my core. She was eager to find out what gave me life and what made me tick. She wanted to know me. She yearned to find out who my people were, because she understood that moving is hard. She understood what it’s like to feel trapped in your house, at the mercy of the baby’s nap. Then, she asked me questions about my dreams, and what I wanted to do, and what I had done already in life.
“I love it,” she finally said at the end of our conversation, “and I can’t wait to be friends.”
I smiled back at her, humbled by this woman who so adroitly made me feel interesting — who made me feel known. She wanted to build a friendship. She wanted to know the inner me, and she’d done that by asking me the three questions I was, without even knowing it, dying to be asked:
Who am I? Who are my friends? Where am I going?
Because whether we’re 13 or 30, we still want to be known. We still want to be understood.
Wouldn’t you agree?