Ask Another Question

But how do I choose a good one?
by Thomas Dutton

I work as a high school teacher, so a large portion of my days consist of asking and answering questions. Usually, when a student needs help, I try to ask a question first. But sometimes I catch myself phrasing something as a question that really isn’t. For example, asking a student “have you tried ___?” isn’t a meaningful question. I know that they haven’t tried it, and I’m just telling them what to do, but making it sound like a question to make myself feel better. Now this isn’t some pedagogical evil, but it does reveal my intentions. I’m not interested in learning what they are thinking or what ideas they have. I want to get them on the right track and move on to the next student. Sometimes this attitude is reflected when I’m in discipleship scenarios, too.

Someone shares about a hard day or a difficult situation. It sounds like they need to pray about it. And if they could just work on a better morning routine. I want to be a good listener though, I want to ask a question. But what do I really want? Asking a question that is primarily leading them to a conclusion I already have in mind reveals that I actually don’t want to listen or learn anymore, I want to give my opinion. There is a proverb about this: A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion (Proverbs 18:2, ESV). We are foolish when we let our desire to express our opinion overtake our desire to understand what someone is going through. So how do we seek to understand?

Ask questions without an agenda. Seeking to understand means we ask a question without a response ready. We don’t map out the next few questions we’ll ask. We don’t rush to get the conversation to a given place. We ask questions and listen. Maybe this consistent struggle in your marriage is related to a past relationship. Nope? Maybe it’s related to a lack of healthy friendships. Nope? Maybe it’s related to what you saw in your parents’ marriage growing up. Ah, there it is! Let’s explore that a little more. To get to this point requires a willingness to keep asking and listening. It requires a humility that doesn’t assume the first thought is the best one. It requires a desire to understand rather than to express an opinion.

Ask questions that get to the heart. Not all questions get closer to what’s going on under the surface. Someone mentions a difficult relationship with their mother. Asking about the mother’s age or occupation likely will not give much insight into the relationship. What about what their relationship looked like when this person was a young child? What about how conflict usually plays out in this relationship? What about what wounds from other relationships either person brings to this one? These are things that might illuminate what’s going on, and get closer to some deeper wound or struggle or sin at play. These are things that might help us understand.

When you hit something, keep digging. Imagine you are like the young people in Holes. Each of them digs a hole every day, and almost every day, they find nothing. But when they hit something promising, they’re asked to keep digging in that area. We don’t want to keep digging if we haven’t struck anything. It may sound at first like anxiety from work is related to an unhealthy relationship with a boss, but if that’s not it, move on to another question. Continuing to ask questions about something that turns out not to be very relevant can be frustrating and even hurtful. Maybe after asking another question, you learn that your friend has a great fear that they’re never going to get the promotion that they want. Here’s something—keep digging! Why do you desire a promotion so badly? What is it that scares you about being in this role in a few years? Is the expectation to keep moving up something you’ve put on yourself, or do you feel pressure from other people in your life?

Like digging hole after hole, seeking to understand takes work and patience. But let us not be fools, seeking instead only to express our opinions. Let us remind ourselves of the work that Jesus completed on our behalf, and the patience he extends to us daily. Let us, like Jesus, put others above ourselves. Even when we’re tired, when we feel like we’re getting nowhere, when it’s getting late.
Ask another question.

by Thomas Dutton