Asking Good Questions

My last two posts have been on listening.  And yes there are plenty of times when we have no space left to listen to another person which we’ll discuss later. Tami Resch, my colleague, has written an excellent module on Good Questions.

Good Questions Engage the Heart

If our goal is to engage the heart, then our questions must be clear, direct, and compassionate. Good questions are short, usually ten words or less. Ask questions that get at the difficult issues and reveal underlying assumptions and attitudes. Good questions expose vulnerability, as they cultivate an open and supportive relationship. Make it a rule to respond respectfully to whatever you hear. Don’t be surprised by the sins of others—just as you should not be surprised by your own sins. In this way we demonstrate the grace and kindness of our God. “God’s kindness leads you towards repentance.” Romans 2:4

Good Questions Avoid Manipulation

Manipulative questions corner others and do not allow them to discover the state of their heart. Avoid questions designed to bring someone around to your point. A question like “Don’t you think you need to clean your room?” only forces someone to agree with our point of view. “Do you know why you are acting this way?” only sets us up to give someone a speech. Avoid questions that accuse: “Why did you do it this way?” What is implied is, “You, idiot, what in the world were you thinking?”

Good Questions Are Creative, Varied, and Specific

Jesus asked creative and varied questions, not because he was without knowledge, but because he was getting to the hearts of the people he encountered. His questions were purposeful, and as varied as the people he encountered. “Who warned you of the coming wrath?” was an appropriate question of the Pharisees. “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” was an appropriate question to the woman caught in adultery.

The Bible gives many examples of varied questions:

Questions that clarify:

“Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9)

“Who is it you want?” (John 18)

Questions of concern and compassion:

“How long has it been like this?” (Mark 21:19)

“What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51)

Questions inviting a confession of belief:

“Who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27)

Reflective questions (questions that are given at one time to answer at another) are quite effective. Often we learn as much about a person from what they are unable to answer as what they are able to.

Specific questions formulated in light of a person’s story and context can be helpful to achieve deeper levels of understanding. “How has growing up as a Navy kid influenced your feelings about moving?” Asking specific questions about a person’s given name (meaning and origin) can help unearth clues about her potential and who God is naming her to be.

Good Questions Are Part of a Two-Way Dialogue

Though a person coming to you may be asking for help, no one enjoys feeling like a project. Engaging in a two-way dialogue develops trust in relationships.

Closed Probe Questions are like fishing with a hook. They are used to focus on a specific detail or issue. These questions encourage a yes or no answer or a short response. “Have you told the worship leader your decision to no longer be on the team?”

Open Probe Questions are like fishing with a net, and are used to gather large amounts of information. These questions encourage elaboration.* “Tell me how you are doing with your relationship with Paul?” If the answer becomes too long winded, gently interrupt with, “Thank you, that’s what I was looking for.”