The Irresistible Power of a Great Question
David could predict his daughter’s response. The daily dull ritual frustrated something deep within him. Picking up his twelve-year-old daughter at school every afternoon this caring dad wanted one thing – to simply engage his daughter in some meaningful conversation. Somehow, however, it was getting even more difficult to just get one started.
“So, honey, how was your day today?”
“Did you have a good day?”
“Hmm. . . I guess.”
Disappointed and disengaged, a tedious quiet entered the car at this point and enveloped them both the rest of the way home, day after day, week after week. David hoped his questions would have inspired something more than this. Precious moments were passing them by. When he shared his dilemma with me as his pastor there was something he wanted to know: Was the problem that he could no longer relate to his almost teenaged daughter or had he simply chosen the wrong topics to talk about?
I was convinced it was “none of the above.” The problem was not generational, but conversational; a mistake often made by parents and pastors. It wasn’t a matter of the topic he chose, but more so of the tone and technique. While his questions were well intentioned, they were falling flat. My advice to David at first may have sounded a bit more financial than parental:
“You need to improve your interest rate.”
David’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”
“Instead of asking a general question the same way you may ask it of a hundred people you pass in the hall,” I said, “give it a little more thought. Think of a simple way to make the question more interesting and intriguing. Before you ask, give just a little more thought to what she might like to be asked, or how. Sharpen the edges of your question and see what happens.”
The next day, instead of asking his daughter for the umpteenth time the all-too-predictable, “So, how was school?” David asked a sharper-edged question: “Sweetheart, what was the best thing that happened to you at school today?”
The results were immediate. When he told me about it, David was ecstatic. The first time he asked his daughter this question this way, her response was enthusiastic. In fact, he told me that she was still talking with him about it for several minutes after they got home. This was a big win for this dad. As a result of this new approach, their relationship was energized and renewed. David had discovered the secret of turning a good question into a great one.
Questions – A Powerful Tool
Questions are one of the most powerful, and perhaps underused, tools in a pastor’s (or parent’s) toolbox today. Just five minutes of expressing interest in others will do more to build your relationship than five months of trying to get him or her interested in you.
Questions are invitations. As clearly as an invitation opens the door of your house to a friend to attend a birthday party, bridal shower or backyard barbecue, questions invite people in. They evoke response. Questions engage. Effectively formed and sensitively placed, they construct an atmosphere of interest that draws upon the hidden resources, potentials and needs of a person’s soul.
Jesus consistently utilized the tool of asking great questions and, as a result, spent much of his time on earth in ministry asking them. He interspersed no fewer than fourteen questions in the Sermon on the Mount alone (Matthew 5 – 7). Some of his questions in the Gospels included:
- “To what shall I compare this generation?” (Mt. 11:6)
- “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?” (Mark 8:36)
- “What would you have me do for you?” (Matt. 20:32)
Questions have a way of cutting through the busy debris of life and drawing upon what really matters. Effectively posed from pastor to parishioner or parent to child, I have watched great questions relieve emotional loads, open closed minds and brighten faces with renewed excitement and interest.
Great Questions: 8 Characteristics
Great questions carry certain characteristics. Among the essential skills of effective pastors and leaders is the ability to turn a good question into a great one. This involves understanding what makes a great question truly GREAT. The right question asked of the right person at the right time can do much to draw out fresh and meaningful insight, initiative and creativity. The wise pastor today will use questions to challenge and inspire his team to greatness.
Asking rather than telling, questions rather than answers, has become the key to leadership excellence and success in the twenty-first century. Peter Drucker, considered the leadership guru of the twentieth century …, notes that the leader of the past may have been a person who knew how to tell, but certainly the leader of the future will be a person who knows how to ask. . .
Imagine the potential open doors and new ideas latent within the minds and hearts of your church members, board members and pastoral team members. Many of them are just a question away. Understanding what makes a great question truly great is a big step towards strengthening your effectiveness as a leader.
But, what characterizes truly “great” questions.? What sets them apart? Effective leaders recognize that GREAT QUESTIONS ARE:
(1) Fueled by Genuine Interest. Paul the Apostle said: “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others (Phil. 2:3-4).” In other words, it’s time to improve your “interest” rate.
Refreshing your interest in the lives, the thoughts, ideas and opinions of the people around you requires a bit of wonder on your part. By this, I mean taking the time to wonder about other’s thoughts and experiences. Ask yourself:
- I wonder how their day went today?
- I wonder what their greatest joys are? Their greatest challenges?
- I wonder what ideas and dreams they hold?
- I wonder what they fear or worry about?
- I wonder what they are hoping for?
- I wonder what question they most need me to ask?
These questions and others work wonders when it comes to getting us out of ourselves and interested in others. They enliven our sensitivities and create an intrigue that inspires great questions and motivates great question asking. They inform our topics and inspire our tone.
(2) Not Answered Merely with a “Yes” or “No”. Nothing will slow down a conversation much more than a pastor or leader that asks questions which can be answered with one word. Such questions are not just simple, they are simplistic. They merely search out facts while failing to engage the personalities, minds or opinions of another. The best questions are open-ended ones that inspire sentences of response.
(3) Razor-Sharp. Great questions are those which effectively illicit a response. Vagueness will shut down openness and cut off responsiveness in communication. The best questions are those which do more than seek information, they seek specific information. If you were a youth pastor, for example, which of the following questions would you most want your senior pastor to ask you:
“So, what’s your vision for this youth ministry anyhow?”
“If you and your youth group could do one thing to serve this community and be guaranteed it would succeed, what would you like to do?” (Notice how this question removes any concern of fear or failure that may hinder thinking?)
Great questions are provocative ones. They are thoughtfully, specifically and strategically designed to draw out the heart-felt ideas, opinions, notions, feelings, concerns, dreams, issues and perspectives of the person being asked. Few things are duller than a dull question. Keep them sharp by being specific.
(4) Usually Not Begun with the word “Why”. Too often we tend to ask “why” questions much too early in a conversation. (I think it is one of the first ones we ask our parents as toddlers – “Why???”) Like a submarine suddenly electing to dive straight to the ocean’s floor without adjusting the cabin pressure, “why” questions tend to go for too much too quickly. They tend to suddenly overwhelm instead of carefully inquire. They storm into places where angels fear to tread, without thought or consideration of the readiness or responsiveness of the individual being asked.
For example, a husband may abruptly ask his wife, “Why are you so uptight?” However, if he is wise, he may ask it this way: “You seem to have a lot on your mind. Would you like to sit down, have a cup of coffee and talk about it?” It is clear which of these would garner the best response, is it not?
(5) Sometimes Followed by a Pause. Don’t be afraid if your question is initially met by a little silence. Sometimes the most honest answers are preceded by a pause. (Some sociologists call this the “pregnant pause”). Instead of hurriedly interpreting quietness as non-responsiveness, give the question a chance to sink in a bit. The pause may mean they need a moment to think before responding. Perhaps your question is a penetrating one.
To hurriedly or nervously interject follow-up questions may short-circuit the genuine initial responses that need to be heard. Ask, and then wait. You may just be surprised at what you hear.
(6) Not Leading Questions. Great questions are invitations, not cattle-prods. Inquiry does not mean interrogation. It is easy to fall into the trap of using questions in order to compel a person to come to our conclusions, instead of genuinely getting a sense of what they are thinking and feeling. Teams, however, can often tell when you are driven by preconceived intentions. Such an approach used too frequently is disingenuous, at best, and often intimidating.
(7) Drawn From Great Motives. Before you ask a team member a question, it helps to first ask yourself one: “What’s my motive? What is motivating me to ask this question of this person right now?” More often than not, the tone of a question is even more important than the topic. What is fueling the question? Is it curiosity? Boredom? Anger? Interest? Suspicion? Hope? Concern? Frustration? The motive behind a question colors the tone in which it is asked.
“A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver (Prov. 25:11).” In other words, asking the right question of the right person and the right moment with the right tone for the right reasons can produce something amazing.
(8) Provocative. Great questions provoke us to think and to action. The story is told of a young CEO, Steve Jobs, who was trying to build his executive team in the early days at Apple Computer. When he met with one executive he had his eye on at PepsiCo he found himself struggling to find a way to convince the well-paid corporate leader to make a mid-life career change. As a last ditch effort and a little desperate, Jobs asked the question a bit differently: “John, do you want to spend the rest of your life making sugared water, or do you want to change the world.”
Wow! What a question; specific, provocative and challenging. Jobs did the work of turning his good questions into a great one. As a result, he found himself with a new team member.
David’s frustration with his daughter’s mono-syllabic answers led him to ask a question. This question was not for her, but one he needed to ask himself: What would be a better way to ask my daughter a question? What would be a more intriguing way to word it for her?
Effective church leaders not only ask their teams and families great questions, they ask themselves great ones. Here are a few great ones for starters:
- What is the best question I have asked my team this week?
- What question does my team most need to be asked today?
- Which question has my wife/daughter/son responded to the best recently?
- How could I make my questions to my team and family even more effective?
And, while you’re at it, remember, leaders don’t just tell. They ask.