How powerful the art of asking empowering questions is!
Asking questions is a uniquely effective tool for unlocking value within people and insight into a text. It spurs learning and the exchange of ideas, fuels insight into Scripture, helps others learn to think and builds rapport and trust among people in a natural learning culture.
This is the basis for discussion teaching and a valuable skill for discovery teaching, and even helpful for directive teaching.
Until recent scientific breakthroughs on how our brain works, we have not been sure why questions are so crucial to maximize learning. However from early on, from Socrates to Jewish Rabbis, wise teachers and trainers discovered the power released through questioning. To even wonder at the power released through questions would have been nonsense.
This shift away from personalized learning with questions at the core accelerated with the Industrial Revolution. Schooling taught us our “3 R’s” (reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic). Yet no schooling offered me a class on how to ask questions and listen carefully.
Empowering questions are a powerful way to stimulate thought. Artful questions are like keys that unlock our minds and the treasury of God’s Word for all to enjoy. Questions connect concepts to lives so real-life transformation occurs. Questions release powerful dynamics for personal discovery and transformation since normally people resist changes that are thrust upon them. Most more readily embrace ideas and changes they help discover.
“The teacher, if indeed wise, does not bid you to enter the house of their wisdom, but leads you to the threshold of your own mind” (Unknown).
We pose questions 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.
“Question everything” (Albert Einstein).
This makes more sense when we tap into more recent scientific studies about how brilliantly God designed our brain (for a brief introduction, see the sub-web page to my webpage Mining God’s Word, Employs Questions to Mutually “Draw Out.”
How does the functioning of our brain fit with questions?
This morning it hit me! I saw the relationship between this divine creation pattern and unanswered questions. Without being aware, for years, questions have been a way for me to partner with the Lord to form space within to later be filled with His revelation. What do I mean? When we ask a question,…
“…the mind leaps to respond. It continues working in the background like computer anti-virus software until our mind synthesizes a solution, thus creating new insight (new mental map). Sow a question that unleashes the energy and creativity of people and watch it bear fruit. So questions cooperate with how God designed us.”
Asking vital questions stretch us and others outside our comfortable space. That’s also why meditation is a key to insight and LifeChange. When space for revelation has been formed as our minds search for an answer, in His timing the space within will be filled with revelation. This may come gradually over time or an “aha” rushing in like the mighty wind of the Spirit of God.
Our Model, the Master of Questions, Jesus
Jesus is our Model for asking empowering questions. In the Gospels, He asked over 300 question. One scholar counted only eight of their questions that Jesus answered. Instead of giving direct answers to a question, Jesus either answered the question with His own targeted question or answered the “question beneath the question” to get to their hearts. He used their questions to penetrate to the core area of the issue at hand.
Are you surprised?
If we want to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, we must believe that God designed our brains to put more weight on what we say than what we hear. Learn to ask questions the way Jesus does: to get people to think more deeply, to reveal hearts, to open up hidden reality for others.
This is not how most of us teach.
Perhaps the biggest inhibitor is that most teachers still feel what they say is more life-impacting than what the other says. Yes, it may be more insightful and complete. God designed our brains however so that what the other says has more impact to them than what the teacher says, even if it’s not as complete. If we believed this, we would end far fewer sentences with a period and far more with a question mark.
- We ask questions for information. Jesus asks questions to provoke transformation.
- We ask questions for answers. Jesus asks questions to bring awareness in others.
- We ask question to convey our assumptions and beliefs. Jesus asks questions to confront the listener with their own thought process, preconceptions, assumptions, and beliefs.
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.
As one example from among many, we love the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37. Have you seen though the powerful model for teaching that utilizes questions? What was the context before and after this marvelous parable? Read it now and answer this question to make your learning active.
What do you see about Jesus’ teaching style?
Jesus surrounded this short “burst” of teaching (His parable) with questions. The asking/answering model in community is the natural way to open up our hearts and minds to learn to think better and to grow. Jesus usually taught with short “bursts” of teaching to set up, frame or transition to questions. Jesus knew that questions can be a powerful force to release motivation to grow.
- 10:25-27 – Jesus answered the scribe’s question with a question (my mom told me never to answer a question with a question).
- 10:28 – Jesus gives a quick, burst of teaching.
- 10:29-35 – In answer to the scribe’s question attempting to justify himself, Jesus gives us another “burst” of teaching to frame or set up the following question. We call this “burst” the parable of the Good Samaritan. Read it out loud and time it to gain perspective as a teacher how short Jesus often taught. One minute!
- 10:36-37 – Jesus asks a pointed question, and then drives home the scribe’s answer with a short, application-laden “burst” of teaching. Jesus normally taught with questions that set up a “burst” of teaching, or vice versa, the “burst” setting up the questions.
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 (see Jesus learning at 12 in the temple, Luke 2:46-47). The only time we cannot learn is when we forfeit our listening hearts as lifelong life-learners and doers.
Why do so many of us hold back from learning to ask good questions?
There may be many reasons. Add your own reason why many tend to use statements to tell rather than questions to “draw out.”
- Fear that we may expose our ignorance.
- Overconfidence in our own knowledge.
- Worry that they will ask a bad question and come across as rude.
- Eager to impress others with their own thoughts, stories and takes.
Let’s follow Jesus’ model and break off our own self-centered focus.
ONE Intent for Empowering Questions
Some use questions as weapons to back people into a corner so we look good. As I read the Gospels, I see the gentle and humble heart of Jesus always concerned for the others. He is aware of where they currently are, accepts, welcomes and embraces them right there in their mess. Yet acceptance never implies agreement. Jesus then nudged them toward their highest and best, depending on their openness to consider, not His need to press in. The woman at the well in John 4 is the classic illustration of this. Soak in this great passage and learn it well.
The most crucial aspect of any question is the intent. Anything as powerful as empowering questions can be used for or against others. Since Jesus is our model, He always intended every word and action of His life for the good of others. Jesus characterizes His heart as “gentle and humble” (Matthew 11:29), the One who modeled for us how to love others (John 13:34-35). So, put aside any ego and seek the highest and best for others. The response we can expect to receive to any question is drastically affected by our attitude in asking. Be open to take the hit yourself.
“Sorry! My question was not well stated. How about…?”
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. 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.
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? Please stop now and don’t continue if it’s to gain control.
TWO Kinds of Empowering Questions
Read the two columns of parallel questions below from top to bottom, the left column then the right. Which of these two columns will create more dialog and sharing of insights in this business setting? Why? Take time in this exercise. The difference is crucial!
|1. Is the project done?||1. How’s the project coming?|
|2. How many steps did it take you?||2. How did you approach it?|
|3. Did your original plan work well?||3. What worked well for you?|
What’s the difference between a close-ended question and an open-ended question?
A close-ended question has one answer or expected answer. These encourage others to give only limited thought and information (often called knowledge or fact questions).
An open-ended question has a variety of possible answers. They develop the capacity to think and to express themselves. They lead to explaining how they feel and what and how they think. Open-ended questions invite creativity and ownership (often called understanding questions). They open and stimulate dialogs, uncover more detail and discover the other’s opinions and issues.
- “Why are open-ended questions better as a rule?” Because they unleash a more powerful chain of events in deeper sharing and wider interaction.
- “Are close-ended questions wrong?” No, of course not. “Why?” I just used one in this bullet point! And note. I followed it up with an open-ended question with multiple answers (“Why?”). If you ask a close-ended question, think of following it with cascading open-ended
- “When do you think you would use a close-ended question?” Perhaps to solicit facts, draw out the quiet ones, refocus after a rabbit trail, get people to elicit specific information, to name a few. Close-ended question don’t, however, open dialog to exploration so impact and influence people less.
The only way I know to learn to ask good questions is by risking asking bad questions (“bad” in our minds). We want the Spirit of God to develop a natural learning environment in community. Let’s give each other the freedom to risk looking ignorant by asking questions. After all, learning begins with ignorance (with something that is not known or not known fully).
THREE Purposes of Empowering Questions
This section has the most direct application for discussion teaching by “drawing out with questions” in an interactive group, although asking good questions apply to all of life. I touch on this quickly here because I prefer to plan before group to default seamlessly from discovery teaching to discussion teaching if people come unprepared. Additionally, the guiding and applying questions can easily be inserted instead of a “burst of teaching” in any style of teaching. So, if you want to prepare for discussion teaching or you want to dive more deeply into questions, pull up the extended teaching on Asking Empowering Questions. Like the three phases of a missile, our three questions are launching, guiding and impacting.
Launching Questions (launching the “missile”).
Here are some suggested question-stems for launching questions:
- “What did you observe in this passage about…?”
- “What did you learn in this passage about…?”
Guiding Questions (in-flight adjustment for the “missile”).
As a general rule, don’t tell the group something they can discover for themselves. Telling when they can discover obstructs learning rather than drawing their own conclusions to impact more deeply. The three types of guiding questions are: clarifying, expanding and redirecting if the dialog gets off course.
- “What do you mean by…?
- “How could you rephrase…in another way?”
Expanding question-stems (comparisons, synthesis, evaluation to make people think):
- “How would you explain…?”
- “What do you think causes…?”
If the dialog wanders from the passage, you may need to draw the group back on track with a redirecting question.
- “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]
Impacting Questions (penetrating the target with the “missile”).
The goal of an impacting question is to deliver truth home to process into real life and to help each person develop “skill in living” from the Bible (i.e. wisdom).
- “What would it look like in your life if…?”
- “How does…make you feel?”
FOUR Marks of Empowering Questions
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. Then after questioning and listening carefully, weigh their views 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.
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. Meet each where they are, which is easier with one person over coffee and more difficult in an eclectic group. 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.
- Be Focused: When we are focused, our questions are succinct, to the point. Keep the questions short so they are easy to grasp. No compound sentences (and, or, but).
- Be Conversational: Even though questions may be thought out ahead of time, still express them in a casual way with everyday vocabulary, not with stilted language or a teachy tone.
- Be Compassionate: Jesus has incredible presence, meeting and accepting each where they are. He bears with another in whatever they are dealing with so that they can experience more of the grace of the Father (see John 21.15-17 for this sort of compassionate questioning).
- Be Forward-looking: Empowering questions focus on future possibilities and changes rather than past problems. Be more solution focused in your questions than problem focused. They aim to build momentum to forge transformation, targeting God’s design and provision.
FIVE W-Helpers…Plus an H for Empowering Questions
The Gospels record over 300 different questions that Jesus utilized in a variety of settings for an array of purposes. Here are our Six Helpers, six lifelong friends of learners.
Who? Where? When? What? Why? How?
“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).
Too many of us have developed the lazy habit of reading without seeing. Saturate ourselves thoroughly with the passage like a sponge absorbs water. Of course, don’t use every question for every verse. As we develop this skill of bombarding a text with good questions, though, we will get a feel for it, just like with any skill (learning a sport, computers, etc.). Here are our Six Helpers (See Appendix: Additional Question Stems for more).
- Who is the author?
- Who is affected by this statement?
- Where was the writer when he wrote (religious, political, and economic situation of the city or region)?
- Where was this written to?
- When was the passage written (before or after the death of Christ; in relationship to other letters by the same author, when…)?
- When did that event in the passage happen?
- What kind of literature is the passage (prose, poetry, history, gospel, parable, epistle, and apocalypse)?
- What is the main subject at hand?
- Why would it be best for me if I responded like the person in the passage?
- Why does this passage make me uncomfortable?
- How did the writer communicate his message?
- How did the results in the passage occur?
Various Benefits from Using Empowering 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 dialog.
- Questions expose the gaps in our thinking and in our knowledge pool.
- Questions open up our minds so new ideas have fertile ground to sprout.
“Doing the thinking for other people is not just a waste of our own energy; it also gets in the way of other people working out the right answers” (David Rock, Quiet Leadership).
- Questions tap into self-learning.
- Questions invite maximum participation through discovery, creativity, and innovation, teaching people how to think, not just telling them what to think.
When people discover their own answers, their commitment 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.
“The object of the event that excites no question will provoke no thought. Questioning is not, therefore, merely one of the devices of teaching, it is really the whole of teaching. It is the excitation of the self-activities to their work of discovering truth” (The Seven Laws of Teaching by Gregory).
Where Do I Go from Here?
- Use what I’ve written as a trigger to release your own self-growth. If you want to spend more time on this key concept of intrinsic motivation to learn, click here.
- Here are some other tools as free PDF’s you may perhaps be interested in now, or return later. The Art of Empowering Questions, Seminar. Appendix: Additional Question Stems. 100 Questions Jesus Asked. Jesus Asked 339 Questions by Bob Tiele.
- Since guiding questions are especially crucial for a vibrant, interactive group, go on to the next cascading webpage, Turning Obstacles into Opportunities. One common fear people have to teach an interactive group is that it can’t be controlled like directive teaching can be. Therefore, how do we respond to problem circumstances and people is crucial for both discussion teaching and discovery teaching. Learn the power for LifeChange in questions as we “draw out” of others what God has put in. Turn this modeling into formation as we make space for all in the group to learn to ask empowering questions, especially with discovery teaching.