The New Testament records 183 questions that people asked Jesus. He gave a direct answer to three of those questions, but he asked 307 clarifying or redirecting questions in response. Our takeaway: One well-placed question is better than ten good answers.
Asking great questions is a skill every leader should work on developing over time.
Sometimes group leadership gets dumbed down. Maybe you’ve heard people say that all a leader needs to do is facilitate a discussion each week. That’s not true. In fact, part of promoting participation is eventually giving away facilitation to other members of the group. The leader’s main role is to create an environment—both physical and relational—where people have the opportunity to connect with one another and grow closer to God.
The ability to ask good questions is key for any leader. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come naturally for most of us. It’s a skill we have to develop over time. And developing that skill requires effort and intentionality (I know it’s something I’m still working on).
But facilitating great discussions is important. You ought to know how to do it well before you hand it off to your apprentice or other members of your group. Great facilitation (as opposed to teaching) encourages all members of your group to talk about what they’re learning and how they’re growing.
Leaders who facilitate well have some common traits:
- They aren’t afraid or offended by troubling or “out of left field” input by a group member.
- They’re prepared for difficult questions and conversations, but limit they’re own opinions and input in order to give the entire group space to speak.
- They understand that they should only be talking about 20 percent of the time (at most).
- They encourage others to share, listen attentively when others speak, and are affirming.
For most of us, those behaviors don’t come naturally. We have to practice them in order to become better facilitators. The good news is, group provides a great environment and plenty of time to practice. Think about the areas where you need a little work. Maybe you’re too quick to step in and answer when there’s silence in the group. Maybe you’re easily offended by things group members say. Or maybe you tend to sneak in a little teaching by asking questions that have clear right and wrong answers.
Knowing where you need improvement is the first step in honing your facilitation skills.
Broadly speaking there are three types of questions—open, closed and limiting. It’s important to understand each type of question, because there are a variety of ways you can use them in guiding your group.
Closed questions are pointed and obvious. They imply the answer the leader expects. An example would be, “Paul says we are to rejoice in everything, doesn’t he?” Since they imply a “Yes” or “No” answer, there is little or no response from the group. Closed questions will inhibit group discussion and fail to promote self-discovered learning or community. When group leaders don’t prepare they tend to naturally ask closed or limiting questions.
Limiting questions limit the number of “correct” answers to a particular question. While closed questions should have no place in your small group, limiting questions can if they are used skillfully. These questions cause the eyes of your group to look down to their Bible. For example, you may ask, “According to Ephesians 2:1-3, what does Paul say was true of every single one of us prior to coming to Christ?” The question is answered from the text and is not going to produce hearty discussion, but is necessary for uncovering the truth of the passage. And this discovery can lead to open-ended follow-up questions.
Open questions don’t imply an answer and are quite helpful for promoting discussion. They cause a person to think and, hopefully, learn. An example of an open question would be, “What do most students think about Jesus Christ?” or, “What do you observe in this passage? What seems important?” Open questions encourage group participation. The answers can be broad and varied. Open questions are more difficult to prepare, but they help make for a lively discussion.
Why ask questions?
Great questions meet people where they are in their faith journeys. Instead of just providing people with easy (and too often trite) answers, great questions help them to own their faith. Questions encourage people to think for themselves. That self-directed shift in thinking has a higher probability of influencing future behavior. In other words, it has a higher probability of helping people grow.
What makes a great question?
Curiosity is the secret ingredient of great question-asking. A leader should be genuinely curious about what’s going on in the lives of his or her group members and what those group members have to say.
Great questions aren’t judging. They don’t presume an answer. They’re asked in a spirit of learning. They build empathy.
What makes a great question asker?
The most effective leaders are full of conversations, not answers. They’re humble, satisfied with delayed credit (or no credit at all), generous, concerned with others, curious, and empathetic. Great leaders ask great questions and continually strive to be better at asking great questions.
I don’t know about you, but I’m better at asking questions than I used to be but not as good as I want to be. Improving is hard work, but it’s worth the effort.