Good question…

How are you doing? Does anyone want to share something? Have you ever…? These are common questions and frequently raised, but responses tend to be lackluster, or as canned as the question that called for them. For the various situations I enter and am part of, I’m trying to figure out better alternatives.

Some time ago, an InterVarsity staff person put me on to what she was learning from Leighton Ford, who was starting a leadership ministry called Arrow (which has since developed somewhat–see here for more). Apparently this guy who had been around the evangelical block a time or two had decided that what he really needed to do was not to deliver more content ingeniously, but to figure out questions that would stir meaningful responses. That stuck with me.

Questions open doors into places worth investigating, and into spaces we might not have known even existed. In either case, they tend to be good vehicles for moving across territory that deserves exploration. Of course, since careful questions can lead to an unanticipated degree of self-reflection, care must be taken not to force people past their comfort level. Rather, they need to be posed with humility and respect. Not only that, but asking questions can actually become distracting if one focuses on asking the next question, so careful listening to responses is critical.

Too often questions, whether one-on-one or in groups, provide cover for imposing content (I need to teach you something), or seeking assistance (I need you to do something); they also can simply be boring (especially when pulled from a barrel of stock phrases). But if we step back for a moment to consider how amazing it is to talk with another person, to have the opportunity to learn or encourage (or admonish? see Colossians 3:16), questions can quickly create exchanges that border on the sacred.

What sort of questions lend themselves to this? How about

What would you like someone to know about you? And a variant, What question(s) do you wish someone would ask you?

When are you most alive? And its companion, What sucks life out of your soul? (some traditions encourage the regular consideration of acts/experiences of consolation & desolation)

Where have you seen God at work?

What have you recently learned? What do you wish you knew better?

Connected to this matter of content, it also helps to recognize how questions are context-specific. That is, the summer staff at a camp is likely to call for one sort of questions, while what is asked of someone in a small group gathered for Bible study gets another. Same for interacting with people who, say, agreed to read one’s novel and offer feedback. This last case happened for me recently, but I failed to take seriously enough the opportunity presented by it: I asked for feedback, but in too general a way. Far better would have been a couple of more pointed questions that would not only direct readers’ attention (a precious gift they had offered) but also give me more guidance for making necessary adjustments (an important result of their gifts). However, having mulled over this post, I’m going back to this gang with a different set of questions, with the hope of richer conversation and more useful results.

And you: have you found questions that open discussion and take interactions in unexpected but constructive directions?

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