Gretchen E. Ziegenhals: The how of asking good questions

iStock / Nicky Blade

Christian leaders spend their workdays asking questions, but few are trained in how to ask good ones. Good questions are powerful tools for building relationships, assessing needs, creating an atmosphere of inquiry and imagination, and charting a way forward.

Jesus asks 307 questions in the four Gospels. And according to Martin B. Copenhaver, the president of Andover Newton Theological School, he fields only 183 -- and of those, directly answers only three.

Jesus asks questions like, “What are you looking for?”

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?”

“Who do you say that I am?”

Why does Jesus seem to love asking questions? Why is this one of Jesus’ favorite modes of conversation? What impact could good questions have on our work today?

For Jesus, asking questions is a way of entering into a deeper relationship with people, engaging and encouraging them, probing their assumptions, showing them respect, and giving them freedom to think about the radical love he is offering.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, “The Surprising Power of Questions,” Alison Wood Brooks and Leslie K. John remind us of how important it is for all of us to ask good questions. Asking good questions, they write, “spurs learning and the exchange of ideas, it fuels innovation and performance improvement, it builds rapport and trust among team members,” and it can reduce risks by revealing “unforeseen pitfalls and hazards.”

Like those in the business world, most Christian leaders spend their workdays asking questions of various types. Yet few of us are trained in how to ask good questions or how to use the ones we do ask effectively. Most people don’t ask more questions, the authors say, for a variety of reasons -- ego, apathy, overconfidence in our own knowledge, fear of asking the wrong questions, failure to understand the benefit of good ones.

But we all wish others would ask us more questions, and we actually like people better who do.

The benefits of asking questions come from both quality and quantity. Good questions, the authors note, pay attention to type, tone, sequence and framing. Types range from introductory and mirror questions -- “How are you?” “I’m fine. How are you?” -- to subject-changing (“full-switch”) and follow-up questions.

The authors stress the value of follow-ups, which convey the questioner’s genuine interest and care, so that the conversation partner feels respected and heard.

Open-ended questions tend to yield more and better-quality responses, they note, as does a relaxed tone.

The sequence of our questions matters as well. In a tense encounter, it is better to ask the toughest question first. “People are more willing to reveal sensitive information when questions are asked in a decreasing order of intrusiveness,” Brooks and John write. On the other hand, they say, “if the goal is to build relationships, the opposite approach -- opening with less sensitive questions and escalating slowly -- seems to be most effective.”

When my children were young and learning to interact with others, I encouraged them to ask the other person at least three questions before they talked about themselves. “Well, how are you?” young Ben learned to ask the librarian while checking out his books.

It is important to ask good questions before a meeting or gathering, while the event is being planned. Such questions can help focus the agenda and conversation around who will be there and why. A good event is the intersection of the participants’ needs and questions and the conveners’ goals and questions. Thus, conveners should ask, “What key questions are our participants or constituents asking? What surveys can we use before the meeting to assess the needs of those we will serve? What questions do we have for the participants? What would we like to learn through the gathering?”

It is also important to ask good questions during a gathering, because they can create a positive atmosphere of inquiry and imagination. A helpful approach is Appreciative Inquiry, a way of asking questions that is not problem-centered but rather conducive to creative, life-giving responses. Appreciative Inquiry evokes positive stories and images and helps participants envision a better future.

For instance, conveners might ask participants at a gathering, “When have you successfully met a challenge?” rather than, “What is the worst thing that has happened to your organization?” Asking positive questions does not ignore the fact that we all face challenges, but it prioritizes our agency and ability to meet those challenges in a life-giving way.

When my children would come home from a day at school, I used to ask them, “What problem did you solve today?” or, “What was the best thing about your day?” These Appreciative Inquiry questions helped them frame their days in a positive light and understand their capacity to be authors of their own stories.

Finally, it is important to ask good questions at the end of an event, to assess impact, discern what matters now and chart a way forward. Conveners might ask, “What did you learn that you are taking with you? What questions still need to be answered? What moment filled you with delight? What is the next step you will take when you arrive home?”

In order to ask these final questions, I’ve sometimes used a mediated technique in which I invite participants to take a party favor from a bag. If they select a SuperBall, I ask them to share an idea that is “bouncing around” for them. If they select a toy car, I ask them to share where they need to go from here. If they pick the goofy sunglasses, I ask them to share an insight they have received from the gathering.

This playful exercise is a way of easing the pressure on participants to produce a wise sentence or insight at the end of a meeting or gathering. It is a way of getting questions answered at a slant.

Playful questions also embody the truth to which Brooks and John point: “The wellspring of all questions is wonder and curiosity and a capacity for delight.” They conclude: “Sustained personal engagement and motivation -- in our lives as well as our work -- require that we are always mindful of the transformative joy of asking and answering questions.”

I’m sure that many of those who engaged Jesus’ questions felt that same wonder and transformative joy.