Questions are powerful!
Asking questions is the sixth of the seven essentials for cultivating a natural learning culture. Questioning is a uniquely effective tool for unlocking value. A good question fuels insight into Scripture, accelerates the exchange of ideas, spurs learning, and builds rapport and trust among people in a natural learning culture.
We learned our “3 R’s” in school (reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic).
Few of us have been well taught the skill of questioning, however, and fewer have honed the art. Unless we possess a high emotional intelligence (which I don’t!), this is a missed opportunity that we can now shore up. The good news is that by asking more questions, we naturally improve our emotional intelligence. This in turn makes us better questioners, mutually reinforcing. Both are foundational goals in a natural learning culture.
Asking questions unlocks learning and improves interpersonal bonding, whether in me or in others. We pose and respond to queries in the belief that the magic of a conversation will produce a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Sustained personal engagement and motivation require that we are always mindful of the transformative joy of asking and answering questions.
The most crucial aspect of any question is the intent.
Anything as powerful as good questions can be used for or against others. So, put aside any ego and seek the highest and best for others. God designed us to mutually serve one another as a valued image-bearer, beloved by God. Such an attitude safeguards us from using questions to manipulate others for our own purposes. Approach others as a friend and not as an inquisitor painting the other into an untenable position. I often ask permission from the person to ask tough, direct questions.
Some good caring questions are:
“How may I help you?”
“How can we grow together as lifelong learners and worshipers?”
…please take time before the Lord and search your heart. Why do you want to develop the art of good question asking? To gain power over others? Or to serve the highest and best of others? If your purpose is to climb up corporate or social ladders, build your reputation or grow a following, please do not continue! I can’t prevent you from learning the powerful art of questioning from others. I do ask you to be honorable, and not continue with me to develop the art of asking powerful questions unless your one intent is to use questions to build up.
Why are questions so powerful?
Our minds operate by continually looking for answers to unanswered questions. No matter what questions are asked, the mind leaps to respond when our curiosity is whet. For the involved learner, it continues in the background until an answer is synthesized, thus creating new insight. Sow a question that unleashes the energy and creativity of people and watch it bear fruit.
“The wise man has more questions than answers” (the 21st century philosopher, A. Nonymous).
ONE Master of Questions, Jesus
In any opportunity to influence, two important traits to develop are to learn to become a good listener and to ask good questions. These two skills will take you far in any arena of life, whether the family or work, relationships or Bible study. No wonder the skill to inquire & advocate is crucial. Inquire by temporarily laying aside your own values and assumption, best you can, so you can truly listen to the other. Then after questioning and listening carefully, weigh their views with carefully with yours and advocate. Unity does not mean we all think and belief the exact same. Agree to disagree without being disagreeable if differences remain.
Imitate our Model, Jesus. He asked lots of questions. Someone counted 307 questions in the Gospels. Ask questions the other person will enjoy answering. And listen to the full response from others to your question, even if you know where the person is going. The art of good questioning lies in genuinely wanting both the information discovered in their answer and the increased connection with the person answering.
Jesus learned and then later taught through the rabbinic and Hebraic style of learning, through asking and answering questions. When He was at the temple at twelve years of age, it was questions and answers that awed the leaders.
After three days they found [12-year old Jesus] in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers (Luke 2:46-48, emphasis).
Whenever we read the Gospels and Jesus asks a question, answer it! Don’t wait to see how Peter or the Pharisees or the crowd answer His question. When Jesus asks a question in the text, answer it personally in your own words. This brings Scripture powerfully alive for LifeChange, in us and in others.
Use questions like Jesus did, to unlock Bible passages and the hearts of others so we change how we think. Let’s begin to ask and answer Jesus’ questions. I selected only ten from questions Jesus asked. Read the Gospels and discover these treasures for yourself.
- What do you want me to do for you? (Matt 20:32).
- Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your lifespan? (Matt 6:27).
- Why are you terrified? (Matt 8:26).
- Could you not watch for me one brief hour? (Matt 26:40).
- Do you believe I can do this? (Matt 9:28).
- Do you not yet understand? (Matt 16:8).
- Why does this generation seek a sign? (Mark 8:12).
- Why were you looking for me? (Luke 2:49).
- What are you thinking in your hearts? (Luke 5:22).
- How is it that you seek praise from one another and not seek the praise that comes from God? (John 5:44).
Questions tap into the revolution in learning that God is on the march to bring about in the 21st century. A listening heart prepares an inquisitive and understanding mind as we cultivate a natural learning culture. The only time we cannot learn is when we forfeit our listening hearts as lifelong life-learners and doers.
FIVE W’s and an H, Our Six Helpers
Jesus asked many questions, as did many of the great men and women of God throughout the ages. The Gospels record 307 different questions that Jesus asked in a variety of settings for an array of purposes. Sometime read through the Gospel of Luke just to note how Jesus used questions to teach and help others to learn. Let me introduce you to your Six Helpers. These six lifelong friends of learners are the same questions Jesus asked.
Who? Where? When? What? Why? How?
“Question everything” (Albert Einstein).
Too many of us have developed the lazy habit of reading and living life without truly seeing. But not Jesus! In Bible study, saturate ourselves thoroughly with the passage like a sponge absorbs water. Bombard the text with questions, although not every verse with every question. Yes, the Bible is a collection of historical accounts that happened 1,000’s of years ago. These stories are also divine and timeless. So, we ourselves are in the narrative, if we make the effort to really see. The Bible stories are our own story. You are in it. To read Scripture as a mere spectator looking on is to miss the main purpose of its inclusion. Scripture is our story.
As we develop this skill of asking good questions, we will get a feel for it, just like with any skill (learning a sport, computers, etc.). Any question that is aimed at the text is appropriate. I call these “observational questions” when aimed at the text since they will help take blinders off so we can observe more thoroughly.
You start a question and it’s like starting a stone. You sit quietly on the top of the hill and away the stone goes, starting others (Robert Louis Stevenson).
Take the time and effort to learn to study by asking good questions. The more we practice asking questions in every arena of life, the more naturally and easily they will flow. Learn to think this way. Here are our Six Helpers again.
- WHO? (Person):
- Who is the author?
- Who is affected by this statement?
- WHERE? (Place):
- Where was the writer when he wrote (religious, political, and economic situation of the city or region)?
- Where was this written to?
- WHEN? (Time):
- When was the passage written (before or after the death of Christ or in relationship to other letters by the same author, etc.)?
- When did that event in the passage happen?
- WHAT? (Content):
- What kind of literature is the passage (prose, poetry, history, gospel, parable, epistle, and apocalypse)?
- What is the main subject at hand?
- WHY? (Motive):
- Why should I respond like the person in the passage?
- Why does this passage make me uncomfortable?
- HOW? (Manner):
- How did the writer communicate his message?
- How did the results in the passage occur?
Bombard a Text with Questions
This powerful use of questions aimed at a Biblical text seems to be a skill that relatively few have learned well. Here is an easy in-group exercise to stimulate question-asking toward a Bible verse. Pick out one rich verse in a chapter we have just studied. Give them a timed two-minutes to take their 6 Helpers (who, what, when, where, why and how). Bombard just the one verse with as many questions as each can write down for themselves.
No answers are required; just questions.
Then go around the group one after another and have them share one question (without an answer). Continue to move around the group until everyone in the group says “pass” or we lose momentum. When others are done, I rapidly share the few other questions I may have.
It has amazed me to see how eyes have been opened, seeing that there are so many questions for one verse. This short, simple exercise launches the process of gaining insight through questions. I repeat this until the group is comfortable with asking questions in their private study. When we learn to ask question of the text to draw out insights, we can let the Bible read us even more than we read the Bible.
Guiding Questions in Group Dialog
Guiding questions are a powerful follow-up to what others share. As the group matures in developing a natural learning culture, the group members also begin to ask. Guiding questions help us all wrestle together with the text and its implications. Convictions are first formed internally as people learn to express verbally how they feel about an issue. They link past experience with new truth. Our responsibility as mutual teachers is to help others discover truth for themselves, tapping personally into Spirit-generated revelation. Guiding questions deepen and illustrate, drawing out key thoughts for others to share.
Ask a question to an active learner and our minds go into retrieval mode. If no answer is found, God designed our minds to connect nerve impulses back and forth between previously stored information until we experience insight in creative, new ways. This stored information is fused together so that fresh combinations multiply possibilities. Ask questions to release this self-learning inherent in each image-bearer since our goal is to discover insight through the Holy Spirit, not to just share information.
Keep our minds alert for possibilities, and train other learners to ask good guiding questions. Then questions spring up spontaneously in lively interaction from a multitude of sources. Many discussions will determine their own course and our spontaneous guiding questions will nudge it along.
A conversation or dialog around the Bible is like a dance.
It requires partners in sync in a joyous, spontaneous, fun-filled environment. Embrace the mutual push-and-pull that unfolds over time. Just as the way we ask questions can facilitate trust and the sharing of information, so, too, can the way we answer them.
Guiding questions can start with broad strokes to get people sharing. Then use what they have said as a platform to move to the more personal. For instance, in Matthew 16 Jesus utilized questions in this way. “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (general, 16:13). “Who do you say I am?” (specific, 16:15).
Jesus reveals a powerful principal of learning here. God designed an intrinsic power in words. He spoke creation into existence. Jesus is the Word. I’ve watched people in groups verbalize a truth that I’m sure they have not believed before. What they say often switches on an inner light and I watch how it impacts their life. Peter’s pronouncement that “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” in Matthew 16:16 changed Peter forever. A good question draws the highest and best from another as they speak out affirmations of faith. In those moments, something lying dormant within comes alive when it’s verbalized.
No wonder a natural learning culture is such a powerful environment for learning and growth. Instead of only listening, we are actively discovering. It’s worth the effort to break through barriers to experience the freedom in mutual support.
I have listed a few question-stems for three types of guiding questions for your benefit, clarifying, expanding and redirecting. Don’t feel that you need to memorize all of these. Read through them a number of times, become comfortable and familiar with these good friends so they will pop into your mind spontaneously at the right time!
- “What do you mean by…?
- “How could you rephrase…in another way?”
Expanding question-stems (comparisons, synthesis, evaluation to make people think):
- “How do you explain…?”
- “What do you think causes…?”
Redirecting question-stems (to draw group if it gets off track):
- “Good thought. Who else can add to…? [then redirect to the lesson theme]”
- “How would the rest of you answer…?” [then redirect to the lesson theme]
Don’t let any list overwhelm you! Read these samples several times to get acquainted with them, like good friends, so you can draw on them spontaneously as needed.
FOUR Marks of Transforming Questions
Learn to ask questions that encourage and challenge, empower and release their best to build them up…but without overwhelming them. I’m still on a learning curve with this. Be sensitive to the Holy Spirit. He will get you in touch with the heart of the Discipler, Jesus. Here are four marks or guidelines for good questions. Make the question…
We want to interact together with the text we’re studying and the learning group we are in. The easiest way I’ve found to do this is to keep engaged passage by passage. No “yes-no” questions (called close-ended questions), unless you have a follow up question. Rather than “Did Jesus die on the cross?” try “Why do you think Jesus died on the cross?”
Questions may be thought through or even written out beforehand. Still, express them in a casual way with everyday vocabulary, not with stilted language or a teachy tone. Keep them short and simple, easy to understand and remember. Avoid compound sentences using “and” and “but.” A compound question usually mean we have two questions. Use the second question as a follow-up.
Empowering questions normally release forward focused momentum to forge transformation. They target God’s design and provision, His abundance and His solution more than on our past or our current struggle. Empowering questions activate and release the highest for which God has created us as His image-bearer. Do my questions bring value to the individuals? Are my questions a gift to them to help them discover and grow? Avoid questions that somehow make people feel put on the spot, intimidated and disempowered. Change “What was hard about your week?” to the forward-looking “What was life-giving in your week?” since “we become what we behold.”
Keep a question central to the “main and plain” of God’s Word and the lesson theme. Stay with the basics, not with a minor or controversial topic. Where is this group as a whole and the individuals personally? Especially major on the two essential questions: “What is God like?” and “How does this God see and know me/us?”
“The object of the event that excites no question will provoke no thought. Questioning…is the excitation of the self-activities to their work of discovering truth” (Gregory, The Seven Laws of Teaching).
Various Benefits of Questions
Before reading on, ask yourself: “What do the benefits of asking good questions bring to me?” Jot down your answers for active learning. Add yours to this discussion by posting a comment.
Here are some of the benefits I see.
- Questions expose the gaps in our thinking and in our knowledge pool (this is good!)
- Questions tap into natural learning and invite maximum participation through discovery, creativity, and innovation, teaching people how to think, not just telling them what to think.
- A question/answer approach also helps prevent the leader from becoming the “power figure,” the expert and instead taps into the power of community.
- Questions open up our minds so new ideas have fertile ground to sprout. They force each one to think through concepts that have been hazy to them and learn to express their thoughts better.
- This approach encourages deepening community relationship, and develops a high energy, high trust environment.
- Questions make people think for themselves and examine their heart and their responses.
When people discover their own answers, their commitment to the solution skyrockets, resistance to change dissipates, and a greater level of ownership to respond is unleashed. This increases personal accountability and accelerates internalization, even in the face of high risk.
- Print out the PDF of this page, mark it up and make this your own.
- Start a group with one of the DiscipleMaking Companion series that interweaves these natural learning concepts as a cultural “architect.” My suggestion is to begin with the first one, Philippians, Joy Overflowing, Word & Spirit, and follow the other seven in order unless your group has a reason for another.
- Dive deeper and read the short article on Inquire & Advocate in light of asking good questions.
- Continue to the seventh of the seven essentials, Embeds a Big-Pix Framework into our Brain.