Posted by: Brian Musser | August 15, 2012

How to Ask a Question

The last time I wrote a post on this idea of churches connecting with young adults and or college students (What to do Cross-Generational Encounters turn Cross-Cultural), I left us with the idea that asking questions is the key to understand young adults and the culture they live in.  I encouraged us to develop a list of young adults that we know and then also to develop questions.  These questions should be about parts of their lives that interest us.  Of course it is one thing to know young adults.  It is another to be interested in their lives and better understanding them.  But it is an entirely different thing to be able to ask them questions about their lives that help you develop a real relationship with them.  There is a good amount of trepidation when asking someone else a question.

Questions are scary for two reasons.  You have to admit that you don’t know something.  I know that I don’t know and understand everything but actually admitting to my lack of knowledge in a specific area makes me extremely uncomfortable.  Instead of asking questions about cars and how they work and trying to learn a little bit, i will just sit quietly in a car conversation acting like I am following along hoping that I don’t have to admit my ignorance.  This may be a guy thing but it exists.  Asking questions can be scary because it automatically admits your limitations.  The second reason questions are scary is that every question makes assumption about the person you ask.  It assumes that they know the answer.  It assumes that they want to share the answer.  It assumes that they will even understand the question.  Often our questions can unintentionally say a whole lot about our assumptions of the person we are questioning.  A classic example is the often repeated scene in cop dramas on T.V.

The asks the suspect, “Where were you last night between the hours of 10 and 11?”

The suspect responds without answering the original question but dealing with the underlying assumptions, “Do you think I did it?”

Once I would love it if the cop replied, “Of course I think you did it.  Why else would I be asking that question?”

So how do we get past these concerns.  First let’s work on our questioning skills.  I have been able to look at some materials from the corporate coaching realm especially through Jane Creswell’s books and expertise in regards to asking powerful questions.  I have been able to experience the concept of compassionate questioning while working through Journey conversations among the Interfaith Council at Drexel University.  What follows about questions is mostly drawn from those experiences.  Most of the time in conversations you are not asking questions just get the question you want.  The purpose of questions often are to extend the conversation and get to know the topic and the other person more.  Closed questions with straight up yes and no answers are the least valuable questions to ask in a conversation. Do you have a dog?  Do you work in the city?  Come here often?  What is your favorite color?  Is your grass green?  Although, these are questions they are not going to help you learn much about the person you are talking to.  Answering yes and no questions does not really constitute a conversation.  Sometimes it can even feel like an interrogation. However; sometimes you need to get a couple pieces of information in order to ask a more open ended question.  After asking informational question like:  “Do you have a dog?”  “What kind or type?”  “What’s your dog’s name?”  Then you can transition from informational questions to more open ended questions:  “Why did you decide to get Scruffy?”  “How does having a dog affect your life?”  But try to avoid questions that have assumptions built into them or provide answers for the person you are asking.  “Does Scruffy help you not to be lonely?”  In that question you have assumed that loneliness is something the other person deals with.  Unless they have confided that information in you already you have made an assumption about them that may or may not be valid.  In the other persons head is the question that they won’t ask but will be, “what has this person observed about my life that I would need a dog to not be lonely?”  You can ask how something makes them feel but don’t make an assumption insert the feeling into the question for them.

As we practice questions, we have to assume that they are the expert on the subject matter of themselves.  They know themselves so much better than we do.  Hopefully, this is obvious but sometimes our questions don’t seem to say that.  I have a campus ministry friend who sees asks people questions about their tattoos every chance he gets.  He says that every tattoo is a story.  I find this fascinating.  Tattoos may be one of the most visible differences between the older and younger generations.  Only a few from the older generations have tattoos and most of them say USMC.  But so many from the younger generation are making intentional decisions to put permanent ink on their bodies.  It isn’t necessary to comment at this moment on how you theologically think about tattoos.  I want you to understand that tattoos are significant markers for the younger generation.  They can be an easy way to get them to talk about themselves.  Most tattoos have at least one story behind.  Sometimes a tattoo will have more than one story.  There are good questions you can ask about tattoos and bad ones.  Some questions not to ask about tattoos because they make assumptions are:

  • Did your friends make you do that?
  • Where you drunk/high when that happened?
  • I bet that started an argument at your house?
  • What will do when you grow up and want to get it removed?

But if you ask the right kind of questions you might be able to start to develop a relationship with someone.  Some good questions about tattoos are:

  • Why did you decide to get that tattoo?
  • What does that image mean to you?
  • When did you get it and why did you get it at that particular time?
  • Are you thinking about getting anymore?  What would you get if you got another?
  • Is it still as important to you as when you first got it?

So if questions are the key to understanding young adults and their culture, we need to admit that we are not the expert about them and be willing to work on our ability to ask good questions.  Questions that are open-ended and that don’t make assumptions.  Next time we will talk about the power of the invitation.

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