Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Art of Good Questions

"Your mother sure asks a lot of personal questions."

When my sons reported this feedback to me, I was appalled. The day before, we had taken a friend of theirs to lunch. Immediately after the food was served, my three companions had fallen into one of those extended, uncomfortable (to me) adolescent guy quiet spells. Seeking respite from the long stretches of silent chewing, I began to do what comes naturally to me -- ask questions. Apparently, though, I'd crossed a line from interested into intrusive, and had made our guest feel uncomfortable and overpowered.

But questions are important, I thought defensively. One of the saddest statements about the human condition comes in John 4:27, after Jesus has engaged in intimate conversation with the woman at the well:
Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, "What do you want?" or "Why are you talking with her?
Skimming through the rest of John's gospel, I considered the way Jesus employed questions. How did he build intimacy and connect without overpowering those he encountered? Skipping over the rabbinical-style of Q & A commonly used as a teaching tool, I discovered three dont's about the art of good conversational questions from our Lord:
Don't ask questions because you're uncomfortable with silence. When the conversation stalls at a dinner party, I'm the kind of person who tries to re-stoke the bonhomie by asking a clever or provocative question. I might seem like a good guest to invite to your casual gathering, but this tendency to "save the day" might actually hinder something that God intends to do in the midst of an uncomfortable silence. If I shut up, someone else might steer the conversation in a direction that's more in line with God's purposes. People might actually have the chance to think, reflect, process, or simply enjoy being together in the moment, without the noise of my voice filling the silence.

Jesus knew when to keep quiet. At the Passover dinner, he took the time to wash their feet in what I imagine must have been a silence filled with tension: "He got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples' feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him." (John 13:4). Finally, he came to Simon Peter, who (like me) couldn't take it anymore, and burst out with: "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?"

What if Jesus had chatted away the entire time he was cleansing their feet, asking inconsequential questions? "How DID these feet get so dirty, John? Blah, blah, blah?" Could the discomfort in the room have reached the level it needed to provoke the intimate conversation that followed immediately afterwards? I doubt it.

Don't use questions to ferret out juicy secrets about a person's past. As a writer, I'm naturally curious about the details of others' stories. This means that I can abuse questions to satisfy my own need for intimate information about people's heartaches and struggles. Jesus never did this. "Do you want to be well?" he asked, ushering the paralytic by the pool into a changed future in John 5:6. I might have chosen to ask a more intrusive, past-focused question: "So tell me ... how in the world did you end up like this, dude?" Don't get me wrong -- I'm not dissing the power of therapeutic questions. But our Lord reminds me that they must be asked out of a genuine concern for healing, not motivated by a self-centered hunger for gossipy information.

Don't be afraid to ask questions that reveal your own needs. In an encounter with someone in a less powerful position than yours (i.e., teen with tween or adult with kid), using questions to ask for help or company breaks down barriers. "Will you get me a drink?" Jesus asked the woman at the well in John 4:7, shocking her with a request for her assistance. "You do not want to leave too, do you?" He asked the Twelve in John 6:67, expressing his need for their fidelity when others were giving up on him. (This question evoked a particularly tenderhearted response from Peter: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.")
Realizing that I had violated all three of these guidelines during that ill-fated lunch, I penned a note of apology to the boys' friend on my best stationery. The post-school report was that he read it, smiled, and tucked it into his backpack. We're going out to lunch again, and this time, I plan to employ the art of questions the Jesus way -- (1) sparingly, (2) lovingly, and (3) truthfully.

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