Asking questions is a technique of comedians, teachers –and particularly philosophers- since the dawn of time. Socrates and Plato virtually made careers out of it. The right question is productive, positive and creative. We should ask more!
We should realise too that effective questioning links closely in with effective listening. As Jesus said on numerous occasions: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” A modern translation puts it: “Are you listening? Really listening?”
And as they say, it’s far more important to question the answerst han to answer the questions.
My son once did a stint with a hard-nosed Sales operation. He showed me the confidential bumpf sheets designed for the sales staff. One chapter was entitled: “The Right Use of Questions.” Here’s a few clips:
“Use questions to:
- Connect with your clients in a more meaningful way
- Better and more fully understand your client’s problem
- Have clients experience you as an understanding, competent leader
- Cross examine more effectively
- Take revealing depositions
- Gather better information
- Do more solution oriented problem solving
- Improve your negotiating skills
- Reduce mistakes
- Take the sting out of feedback
- Defuse volatile situations
- Get cooperation
- Plant your own ideas
- Persuade people”
Isn’t that insightful? Now Jesus was a questioner par excellence. Someone said to me recently (on Facebook) “Jesus never asked a question because he needed to know the answer. He used questions the way a surgeon uses a scalpel, to delicately cut into a new level of understanding.” I think that’s about right.
Effective questions are questions that are powerful and thought provoking. Here’s a few that Jesus asked. Read them slowly and think about the effect they would have produced.
“Why are you afraid?” (Mark 4:40)
“What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51)
“Do you believe that I am able to do this?” (Matthew 9:28)
In each case, the listener is forced to examine him or herself. The onus is on the listener to decide what to do next. Jesus asked many questions like this. He asked questions that provoked or challenged the listeners to think about what was going on in their own lives.
“Are you asleep?” (Mark 14:37)
“Where is your faith?” (Luke 8:25)
“Why do you think evil in your hearts?” (Matthew 9:4)
“Why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31)
Back to the Sales blurb:
“When working with people to solve a problem, it is not enough to tell them what the problem is. They need to find out or understand it for themselves. You help them do this by asking them thought-provoking questions. Rather than make assumptions, find out what the person you are talking to knows about the problem.
For example: “What do you think the problem is?”
Behind effective questioning is also the ability to listen to the answer and suspend judgment. This means being intent on understanding what the person who is talking is really saying. What is behind their words? Let go of your opinions so that they don’t block you from learning more information. Pay attention to your gut for additional information.”
I think that Jesus did this all the time. He put the onus on the listener to figure out what was going on and paid close attention to their answer. There’s a wonderful moment when it is quietly stated that “He knew what was in men” (John 2:24). It was because he knew them from the inside out, that he wanted to know how they responded to the truth that he was declaring.
There are a few things that make Jesus’s questioning style interesting and important for us as Christians.
First, if you ask a question, you’re already beginning to connect with another human being. Just because Jesus might have known the answer already doesn’t mean he was being disingenuous; instead, he was using questions to illuminate what he knew were the real issues in people’s lives.
Second, by leaving a legacy of questions rather than a list of answers (or to-do’s), Jesus was communicating how important it was to think as a Christian. For Jesus, it was more important that he teach us how to think than to tell us what to think!
And then, the fact that Jesus asked so many questions reminds us of our role in this spiritual journeying. We are not simply given instructions and told to do them, robot-style, we are brought into a warm living relationship. We are “no longer servants but sons” (Gal 4:7). Servants obey the rules, but sons enjoy an inheritance of intimacy with the Father. And within that intimacy, your point of view is sought. But Jesus’ approach with his followers was to bring them into “the game” by seeking their responses and working with their answers. Abraham was called a “friend of God” and so entered into a relationship of negotiation with his Lord. You are part of this! What do you think about it?
And of course, the Questioner is himself a Question.
“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (Matthew 16:13)
“Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15)
Public celebrity, in the first question, has to give way to personal decision, in the second. And it is all accomplished through a couple of simple questions. You must answer the question. You must decide for yourself. In the context, Peter answers the question correctly (“You are the Christ!”) but then almost immediately misconstrues the meaning of that insight (“But I don’t want you to suffer!”). And Jesus commends the first and condemns the second with equal compassion for the hapless listener. It’s a very encouraging lesson in discipleship, isn’t it?
And finally, some of Jesus’s questions seem to have a future orientation and so become questions that only we can answer. Consequently their challenge remains, sharp and fresh, awaiting response from our generation.
“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’, and do not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46)
“Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (Luke 12:25)
“So if you have not been trustworthy with worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?” (Luke 16:11)
“When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8)
“Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” (Luke 24:38)
“You do not want to leave too, do you?” (John 6:67)
“Do you love me?” (John 21:17)
Ready to answer?