Four Things Questions Can Do

With the discussion surrounding Rob Bell, it occurs to me that questions could become an innocent bystander in the mess.  Bell’s book apparently has some 350 questions, about half of which are in his now infamous book trailer (that is, my friends, a joke).

Of course, questions have an uneasy relationship with Christianity.   After all, we’ve got the answer, the Fact–if I can deploy some Lewis, who’s all the rage these days.  So what good does sitting around asking questions do?  Best to move straight to the answers and be one with it.

Or maybe not.   When I was in finance, I realized that nearly every financial instrument out there is good, if it’s in the right spot.  And the same is true of questions.  They’re an extraordinary tool–but only in the right spot.  A well-placed, responsibly asked question can contribute to someone’s sanctification and deepen their understanding in a way that few other things can.

With that in mind, here are four things that questions can do.

1) Questions focus the attention of discussion participants. A nerdy example:  We could ask, “What is Lord of the Rings about?” but the range of options is so broad (at the beginning of a discussion) that an answer is virtually meaningless.  Good!  Evil!  Large moving trees!  Narrow the question to “Why does Tolkien include the story of Tom Bombadil, when the plot obviously works so well without it (pace the movies)?” and our attention narrows accordingly.  The question sets the frame or the context for the discussion (which is perhaps why good questions should probably be used sparingly).

2) Questions make the familiar unfamiliar, which can help us see it more clearly. Having a discussion about the Gospel of John is really difficult because everyone thinks they know the right answer.  “What is John about?”  Jesus!  True enough, but at the start of a discussion it’s not particularly illuminating.  But try on this for size:  “Why does it matter that the Apostle John–rather than Peter, or any of the other disciples–wrote the Gospel of John?” Anyone got an easy answer to that?  Where do we start to look for an answer (hint:  “the beloved disciple”).  You can read the whole gospel of John through that frame and find fascinating insights that are really in the text.

3) Questions expose our presumptions and thoughtlessness. “Good Teacher,” the rich young man says to Jesus. “what must man do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ response? “Why do you call me good?” Jesus’ response (wherein he answers a question with a question) exposes the rich young man’s presuppositions and presumably thoughtless use of a customary greeting. He said more than he realized, and the question exposes that.

4) Questions engender curiosity by pointing our attention to the unknown.  Ultimately, a question differs from a statement in that it gives us a hint of a reality that is enshrouded in mystery–the answer to the question can be known (hence the asking!), but it isn’t. At least not yet. As we are confronted by this unknown reality, our thirst for understanding awakes.

In a way, a question dignifies the world or the subject as that which is different than ourselves and as a thing that is worth knowing. It draws us out of our complacent relationship with the world and makes us attentive to its other-ness, its distinctness. The more we ask questions, the more we are able to love the object as we seek an understanding of it.

None of this, of course, says what questions can’t do.  And the limits are many.  Perhaps if there’s interest, I’ll take a stab at unpacking those at another time.*

*This is a repackaged version of a previous post that talked about questions in a specifically pedagogical context.

 

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Conversations that Count: The Body of Discussion

Improv theater, which encompasses comedy and dramatic theater, happens on a stage. That is, improve theater occurs within a defined space, and consequently within a defined time. As such, it is an “incarnational” media.

Not surprisingly, discussion is equally embodied. It happens in space and time. It’s a trivial point, but most discussion leaders overlook the incarnational nature of discussion when they plan their groups. Being aware of how the body works should affect the discussion in three ways, each of which discussion leaders should be aware of as they are planning and leading their group:

1) The environment: Our environment affects us in unnoticeable ways. This is as true of discussion as it is for anything else. For instance, if the “stage” of the discussion is arranged such that there are chairs lined up in rows, the discussion will almost inevitably be filtered through the person standing at the front of the room. Any dialog that does occur will struggle to draw everyone in, as they will not be facing each other.

Choosing the environment and arranging it accordingly will largely depend upon what sort of discussion you wish to have. If you are interested in having an academically rigorous conversation, couches and dim lighting may prove counterproductive (I know, I’ve tried this). If you want an intimate conversation among friends, a windowless classroom is not a very conducive location.

2) Their own body: As the de facto leader in the room, excellent discussion leaders can dictate the energy in a discussion through their eyes, their posture and their hands. What they do with their body can often determine what others do with their body. I used to find that when I leaned back in my chair and stared at the ceiling in thought, the conversation would continue but the energy level would drop. However, when the discussion reached critical points, I would sometimes lean into the middle of the room or even touch a student on the shoulder to heighten the impact of the moment.

A corollary lesson is to watch participants’ bodies during the discussion to measure engagement. When participants are engaged, they will sit forward on their chairs, lean forward over the table, etc. In other words, they change their posture. This is true of audiences, too. Knowing how to read a group like this can be helpful for determining when and how to affect energy levels in the room.

Conclusion: The pursuit of ideas through discussion is not a disembodied one—rather, as anyone who has participated in discussions for longer than two hours knows, discussion is an excellent opportunity to “submit the members of [our bodies]” as members of righteousness. Discussion is a microcosm for real life, and hence an opportunity for the sanctification of leaders and participants alike.

I have spent some 850 hours participating in discussions and another 700 leading them. These are my reflections on what went well and what didn’t. If you want to hear more or have me speak to your church, your youth group or others about how to use discussion effectively, contact me at Matthew.L.Anderson at Gmail.Com

Other posts in the series:

Conversations that Count: How Leaders Lead Discussions

*Note: After taking a summer break from this series, I am returning to it and will finish it this fall.  For other posts in the series, see the bottom of this post.*

The flexible nature of discussion presents an inherent difficulty for any discussion leader: how does he ensure that the discussion goes well or that it meets the desired goals? Unlike a lecture, where an educator controls the flow of information, a discussion leader must work with other participants who don’t know the appropriate ending of the conversation. How does a leader ensure that the class makes progress in understanding the topic they are discussing?

  1. Know when to delegate. In a discussion, inspiration can come from any student at any moment. When a student’s face lights up because they have just seen something–had some flash of insight or understanding–go with them. Great leaders don’t have to be in control all the time–they are more invested in the success of the group than their own position. And sometimes, that means handing the reigns over to those who have a better sense of the direction the discussion should go.
  2. Persuade, don’t force. True education must be voluntary. We can only prompt our students to seek the truth—we cannot force them. But if participants do not understand why they are having a certain conversation they will be far less engaged than if they are convinced of the goodness of the direction. Persuading a class can be time consuming, and for some people it can seem distracting and less important than simply talking about the text. But in discussion we are not merely building a community. We are building a community of a certain sort. The question is, “What kind of community?” In the long run, a community where there is trust established because students see the decision making process and feel empowered to change it will be a far more healthy community than that in which they forced to go a certain direction against their will. Of course, the more transparent and persuasive the discussion leader is, and the more “successful” discussions he leads, the more participants will trust his judgment and it will be easier to propose a topic for discussion.
  3. Persuade the right students.  Within any community, a natural leadership hierarchy arises.  While you have a de facto authority, the students will have their own sense of structure.  Know who the leaders within the group are, and win them.  They can do more to help–or hurt–your cause than you may be able to.
  4. Treat people like adults. As we’ve pointed out here recently, infantilization may be harming students as much as hurting them.  Treating high schoolers like adults by ending “nanny style” education–repeatedly reminding them of assignments, holding their hands through work, etc.–helps them trust the leader more. That sense of trust, not surprisingly, makes it far more likely that they will act responsibly in the discussion and treat the leaders’ recommendations with more deference and respect. Students understand when they are being respected and are often eager to return it.
  5. Act as referee when you must. When improv actors break “the rules,” they need to be held accountable. If you give participants full authority over the course of the discussion, you must be prepared to act if they abuse that authority with firm, even-handed discipline.  This is true even for adult discussions—if you have a group that isn’t listening to each other, it is appropriate to ask them why they aren’t listening and what they plan to do about it. The discussion leader must make the appropriate behaviors and expectations clear for the group.
  6. Set the tone. Most discussion leaders have a de facto position of authority within the group. Good leaders use that de facto authority by setting the tone—through being energetic, dressing well, remaining engaged (even when silent), encouraging, etc.
  7. Mark transitions in the discussion by initiating recaps. The discussion narrative will have points where it is appropriate to take a broader perspective on the conversation itself–where have we been, where are we, where are we going? Those are the sorts of questions that leaders tend to ask, and by initiating them at the right moments, they will be affect the flow the conversation.

These are just a few of the ways in which we exercise leadership in what is, for all intents and purposes, a community of temporary equals.

I have spent some 850 hours participating in discussions and another 700 leading them.  These are my reflections on what went well and what didn’t.  If you want to hear more or have me speak to your church, your youth group or others about how to use discussion effectively, contact me at Matthew.L.Anderson at Gmail.Com

Other posts in the series:

Conversations that Count: The Rules of Discussion

“The codes is more what you’d call……guidelines.” Or so says the inimitable Captain Barbossa of Pirates of the Caribbean.

When it comes to the rules of leading discussions, it’s an important truth to keep in mind: the excellent discussion leader discerns which principles apply in any given situation, and applies them accordingly.

It just so happens that the rules of discussion are very similar to those of improv theater (though with some discrepancies, as Jim accurately noted). R. Keith Sawyer’s scholarly Improvised Dialogues helpfully categorized the principles that improv actors understand and operate by. I draw much of my language here from his excellent work.

1) No blocking. When an improv actor introduces a new development in the scene, the other actors must accept it in some form if the scene is going to move forward. For instance, if John walks on stage and screams “Fire” with a panicked look, the other actors must respond by elaborating, modifying or accepting it in some other way. What they cannot do is say, “No there isn’t.” It may be funny, but it kills the scene. In discussion, the principle of accepting and modifying remarks is the same. While there is obviously some give here–not every comment can be acknowledged or modified, and some might have to be rejected entirely–on the whole, discussion leaders should say “Yes, and…” far more than they say “no.” Creating a culture of “yes, and…” or “yes, but…” will help the discussion move forward smoothly. It is, in fact, one of the most important rules of all of discussion leading.

2) Everyone writes the script. In this classic scene from The Office, Michael completely dominates the improv scene. But in doing so, he doesn’t allow anyone else to contribute to the script. As such, the scene is limited to Michael’s own thoughts and his own creativity. Unless he’s a genius (he’s not, and most of us aren’t either!), he’ll hamper the creative potential of the whole group. So it is in discussion. Everyone has to contribute to the script–it is not enough for one or two people to talk. And while “contribute” may look different depending upon each individuals’ role within the group, great discussions depend upon every person being fully engaged.

3) Don’t write the script in your head. This is similar to the previous item, except framed negatively. When actors do take over scenes, it’s often because they have an idea for where the scene should go. In other words, they’ve written the script in their head and it is left for the other actors to fit in to that script. Such a strategy is nothing less than a domineering power play that doesn’t acknowledge the many other (equally or even more valuable) directions the conversation could go if the other members contributed.

This is a key lesson for discussion leaders to keep in mind. It is so easy to write the script in our head, especially when we have a good idea that we really want students to see. Save it for a lecture–you’ll stifle their curiosity if you turn the discussion into a guessing game. This is extremely difficult for educators, though, as it means relinquishing control of the discussion in a very important way. It means that educators can not force students to see an idea, but can only lead students to see an idea. If you write the script in your head, you’ll only be able to force students to see what you’re seeing. Real education, though, is not nor ever will be cumpolsary in that way.
4) Be comfortable with ambiguity, at least for a while. Because the script of the scene emerges from each characters’ contributions, there is a period where the conflict and characters are ambiguous. While the ambiguity of the scene is lessened at every turn, the speed at which characters make the situation clear depends upon the nature of the improv skit and the time allotted. In short games, it has to develop very quickly. In longer games, it is important for improv actors to not determine the scene too quickly.

So in discussions. There is almost always a period where the discussion could go in any direction. Most people (students and leaders both!) don’t like the ambiguous period, if only because it’s when we are most conscious of our lack of control. As a result, students and teachers will write the script for the class as a way of minimizing the ambiguous stage. Such a strategy, though, often over simplifies the scene by not allowing nuances and multiple voices to be put on the table. While that may be okay for shorter discussions (half an hour or less), it is a doomed strategy for longer discussions. Writes Sawyer:

In the early moments of an improvisational performance, many ambiguities are left open. The tendency to resolve ambiguities is a common mistake among intermediate-level performers; once actors reach this level, they must often be taught to continue to the scene in the presence of ambiguity. Otherwise, there would be no work to do in the remainder of the scene; these ambiguities and inconsistencies act as the source of tension which drives the performance. (117)

Conclusion:  There are, of course, crucial differences between improv theater and discussion. Most notably, improv actors are discouraged from asking questions (except, of course, in games where they can only ask questions). Questions are, however, one of the most valuable tools a discussion leader has in their toolbox. And the notion of “no blocking” clearly needs refinement–if only because of time constraints, it’s not clear that every comment can find its way into the script. But such discrepancies do not minimize the enormous value of the “improv metaphor” for discussion.

Conversations that Count: The Merits of the Improv Analogy

One of the most difficult problems in any given discussion is identifying what “the right thing to do” is. The question is extraordinarily difficult because so much of the answer depends upon the particular circumstances of the group, the desired ends, and other factors. It is almost an impossible question to answer in the abstract.

Here, though, is where the analogy to improv theater is helpful. Because the script hasn’t been written yet and there are lots of potential endings, what counts as the right action by the actors is not at all clear. The ambiguity of the situation demands individual actors who are thoughtful and sensitive to the various factors that make one decision right and another decision wrong.  This means that legalism–or the idea that one action will work in every circumstances–is not an option for effective improv actors or discussion leaders.

However, that is not to say that improv depends upon relativism, or that discussion leading depends upon relativism. There is a right and wrong in discussion leading, just as there are rules to improv theater. Excellent improv actors and groups play within the rules when they set their scene. While each situation calls for a different response, not every response is created equal.

Such “rules for discussion” may be hard to identify and articulate, but they are there. I will make my attempt in the next post.

The idea that there are rules, though, undercuts the notion that “rightness” in a discussion or in improv a matter of personality. This is, perhaps, the most common confusion people have in discussion, and quite prevalent even in circles of people who would otherwise eschew relativism. It would bother me immensely when people explained away actions in a classroom as a matter of “style.” While each person is going to have their style, excellence does not depend upon having a certain personality type.

What does excellence in improv theater or discussion leading depend upon? Virtue. Virtuous people will be able to see what is best in otherwise ambiguous situations and know how to bring it about. Virtuous discussion leaders will gain wisdom, or the ability to act within the rules of discussion for a desirable end or goal. How does this work? I will forestall answering until my next post (which will be up on Sunday afternoon).

Want to have Matthew speak to the leaders of your church, youth group, business, or school about leading discussions? Contact him at Matthew Dot L Dot Anderson At Gmail Dot Com. Rates are negotiable.

Other posts in the series:

Fostering Conversations that Count: The Rules of Improv as a Model for Discussion

According to the roadmap for this series, this post marks the transition from Part One of the series to Part Two. Congratulations to me for making it this far, and thanks for all the encouraging feedback!!

Ultimately, reading about being a discussion leader won’t be sufficient for learning to lead great discussions.  Like most skills (and I still contend it’s a skill!), effective discussion leading takes practice, practice, practice.

But making “mistakes” and being “successful” depend upon theory.  As such, it is helpful to have a lens, or a framework, through which we can reflect about our performance.  Tied to this lens is a language, a way of speaking.  Having a vocabulary at our disposal allows us to assess our own performance and communicate about it with others.  Eventually, the groups that I have had conversations with have all had a “shared vocabulary” emerge throughout the series of conversations.  Such a shared vocabulary or “language game” enabled their communication (and also, I should note, hindered them at points).

To the end, then, of enhancing discussion leaders’ ability to evaluate their own performances, I have begun articulating what goes on in discussion through the lens of improv theater.  My brother is an improv guy, so he’s got all the practical experience.  I’ve only thought about it a lot, read one immensely helpful book, and had a gazillion conversations with my former boss about the relationship. While the analogy certainly isn’t particular to me, using the language of improv to describe the process of discussion has been extraordinarily helpful and illuminating.  Consider:

The actors are everyone who participates in a discussion, including the discussion leader.

There stage is twofold:  1)  The room that the discussion occurs within, and 2) the text that the discussion is about.  The text is a type of metaphysical meeting ground for the discussion, and as such can function as a stage.

The script is the discussion itself, which makes improv theater a better metaphor than traditional theater.  In improv, the script (including the conflict and the resolution) emerge from the actors’ contributions.  It’s not fixed.

As an analogy for discussion, improv theater is better than any I have yet come across.  It captures the tension within a discussion–there is a goal, but it’s not clear what it is or how the scene is going to get there.  And as any person who has done improv theater will tell you, excellence demands everyone working together.

Want to have Matthew speak to the leaders of your church, youth group, business, or school about leading discussions? Contact him at Matthew Dot L Dot Anderson At Gmail Dot Com. Rates are negotiable.

Other posts in the series:

Responding to Readers: Pat Sikora on Setting Expectations in Discussion Groups

The extraordinarily entrepreneurial Pat Sikora takes on my thoughts about setting expectations in discussion groups.  Regarding my point that discussion leaders should “be appropriately stern” with members who act out of line, Pat writes:

However, I’m not sure I’d use the word “stern,” even with people who are acting out of line. These are the challenging people, and one remedy won’t fit all of them. Some may need a bit of sternness after loving discussion has failed, but this will be the exception. Most people will respond favorably to gentle encouragement and direction. Many simply need someone to reflect back to them how their words or behaviors are affecting others.

Point taken.  That’s the sort of feedback I was looking for when I wrote the series.  I (a) work with students most, so I have the privilege of having a stronger authoritative position than most adult small group leaders would have and (b) work with students, who often respond better to sternness (especially male students).  But Pat’s point that most people respond to gentle encouragement is spot-on:  as I will hopefully say later when I address issues of discipline in discussion groups, students have to trust that the leader is acting in their best interest if sternness is going to have any effect at all. But there is no silver bullet:  each case is different, and each person is going to respond differently to different tactics.  That’s what makes discipline and discussion so difficult, so stretching, and so fun.
Pat also writes:

With adults, I’m not sure that you need to remind them “constantly.” That could get a little old. But from time to time it doesn’t hurt to refresh the expectations and also to seek their opinions. How are they enjoying the group? What are they getting out of it? What would make it better?

Again, well put.  Looks like I should go read Pat’s book and learn how to do this better.

Fostering Conversations that Count: Setting Clear Expectations

Most people, by and large, aren’t used to having discussions. They just aren’t. What passes for discussion in most workplaces, classrooms and small groups is opinining without critique. Very rarely do students actually engage each other in face-to-face conversation about a difficult idea, and even more rarely does a whole group of people attain this level of discourse.

One of the chief problems I have as a Christian educator is changing the student’s expectations for learning. Partly due to habit, and partly due to insecurity, most students look to the teacher to tell them what to think. It is the teacher who determines their educational experience, not themselves.

In small groups, people don’t expect to have their ideas challenged or criticized. The closest people come is the workplace, but there people seem to rarely expect to work together as a unit, especially in competitive environments.

Setting clear expectations–this is a discussion, this is not a discussion–is essential for fostering great discussions. Where the expectations aren’t clear, anything can happen. In adult groups, that may be okay, but it won’t lead to flourishing. Great communities don’t happen by accident. With high schoolers, it’s an invitation for chaos.

That said, here are a three key ways of establishing expectations for discussion:

  1. Praise good things liberally. This is essential for any leader. If you see the smallest thing happen that’s right, praise it. Creating a culture where good things are praised makes people want to do those good things, whether they know it or not (this is especially true of younger people)
  2. Tell people what the expectations are. Most people forget to do this, but it’s extraordinarily helpful. Offer a brief description of what a discussion actually looks like, and work to disabuse people of their bad ideas about discussion. Be clear up front about the expectations so that there are no surprises. In a small group, when people start challenging other peoples’ ideas, it can get testy if no one expects it. Telling people what to expect is one way of mitigating that problem
  3. Be appropriately stern with people who “act out of line.” Classroom management doesn’t go away in discussion classes. If anything, it is even more important to maintain order by enforcing codes of courtesy and respect. Maintaining a safe environment is crucial for great discussions, so students have to know what is appropriate and what isn’t. While we will address discipline more specifically a little later on, having some is key.
  4. Ask students why they aren’t having a discussion. This is a fun one. In discussion classes where students have been raised on lectures, they will often turn toward the teacher and talk to him. Then they’ll try to guess what’s the teacher is thinking. Both of those practices, however, aren’t really “discussion.” When that happens (and it will–I promise!), you can engage those students in a mini-conversation about why they are looking at you and talking to you. In a discussion class, students should talk to the class. Discussion, it turns out, can be both a means and an end in itself.
  5. Remind discussants constantly of the expectations. People forget things easily–I do it, so I expect others to do it. Remind the people in your group of the “rules for discussion” every chance you get, and do it in unique and compelling ways so as to not make them hate you.

Ensuring that discussants know the proper rules for a discussion is essential to having great discussions. As a discussion leader, you want to bring the group along with you and give them ownership over their own learning experience. To do so, however, demands that they know what ownership looks like and requires of them. Clarifying those expectations is essential for students and participants to take ownership of the process of learning.

Fostering Conversations that Count: Setting Clear Expectations

Most people, by and large, aren’t used to having discussions.  They just aren’t.  What passes for discussion in most workplaces, classrooms and small groups is opinining without critique.  Very rarely do students actually engage each other in face-to-face conversation about a difficult idea, and even more rarely does a whole group of people attain this level of discourse.

One of the chief problems I have as a Christian educator is changing the student’s expectations for learning.  Partly due to habit, and partly due to insecurity, most students look to the teacher to tell them what to think.  It is the teacher who determines their educational experience, not themselves.

In small groups, people don’t expect to have their ideas challenged or criticized.  The closest people come is the workplace, but there people seem to rarely expect to work together as a unit, especially in competitive environments.

Setting clear expectations–this is a discussion, this is not a discussion–is essential for fostering great discussions.  Where the expectations aren’t clear, anything can happen.  In adult groups, that may be okay, but it won’t lead to flourishing.  Great communities don’t happen by accident.  With high schoolers, it’s an invitation for chaos.

That said, here are a five ways of establishing expectations for discussion:

  1.  Praise the good liberally.  This is essential for any leader.  If you see the smallest thing happen that’s right, praise it.  Creating a culture where good things are praised makes people want to do those good things, whether they know it or not (this is especially true of younger people).
  2. Tell people what the expectations are.  Most people forget to do this, but it’s extraordinarily helpful.  Offer a brief description of what a discussion actually looks like, and work to disabuse people of their bad ideas about discussion.  Be clear up front about the expectations so that there are no surprises.  In a small group, when people start challenging other peoples’ ideas, it can get testy if no one expects it.  Telling people what to expect is one way of mitigating that problem.
  3. Be appropriately stern with people who “act out of line.”  Classroom management doesn’t go away in discussion classes.  If anything, it is even more important to maintain order by enforcing codes of courtesy and respect.  Maintaining a safe environment is crucial for great discussions, so students have to know what is appropriate and what isn’t.  While we will address discipline more specifically a little later on, having some is key.
  4. Ask students why they aren’t having a discussion.  This is a fun one.  In discussion classes where students have been raised on lectures, they will often turn toward the teacher and talk to him.  Then they’ll try to guess what’s the teacher is thinking.  Both of those practices, however, aren’t really “discussion.”  When that happens (and it will–I promise!), you can engage those students in a mini-conversation about why they are looking at you and talking to you.  In a discussion class, students should talk to the class.  Discussion, it turns out, can be both a means and an end in itself.
  5. Remind discussants of the expectations constantly.  People forget things easily–I do it, so I expect others to do it.  Remind the people in your group of the “rules for discussion” every chance you get, and do it in unique and compelling ways so as to not make them hate you.

Ensuring that discussants know the proper rules for a discussion is essential to having great discussions.  As a discussion leader, you want to bring the group along with you and give them ownership over their own learning experience.  To do so, however, demands that they know what ownership looks like and requires of them.  Clarifying those expectations is essential for students and participants to take ownership of the process of learning.

Want to have Matthew speak to the leaders of your church, youth group, business, or school about leading discussions? Contact him at Matthew Dot L Dot Anderson At Gmail Dot Com. Rates are negotiable.

Other posts in the series:

Fostering Conversations that Count: The Crucial Role of Questions

When it comes to discussions, questions are king. I’ve already touched on (unexpectedly) the tension between questions and answers in a discussion. This last week, I spoke to educators at a Christian school–that very tension was one of the most discussed aspects of my presentation.

There is no little amount of irony, however, in me writing about asking good questions. I have often been criticized for not asking enough questions throughout the course of my normal life. I am far too hasty to opine, a shortcoming that I have been working steadily to improve for some years.

But that simply underscores the first point: asking questions is a skill that may come more naturally to some than others, but ultimately can be learned by everyone. It is a skill that takes a great deal of concentration and awareness, a skill that demands listening closely to what the other person is saying. It is, as a result, one of the most important skills a teacher can have in their toolbox.

That said, here are four crucial roles questions play in a discussion.

1) Questions can focus the attention of discussion participants. While open-ended questions in a discussion are certainly possible and occasionally work well, it is far better to use the question to focus a class’ or student’s attention on a particular aspect of a text or topic. Rather than ask, “What is Lord of the Rings about?” ask “Why does Tolkien include the story of Tom Bombadil, when the plot obviously works so well without it (pace the movies)?” When a student offers an interpretation, I would often ask something like “But if what you are saying is true, what do you make of this passage over here?” The question reorients their attention.
2) Questions make the familiar unfamiliar, which helps us see it better. For example, when discussing the Gospel of John, rather than asking the extremely broad “What is John about?”, I instead asked, “Why does it matter that the Apostle John–rather than Peter, or any of hte other disciples–wrote the Gospel of John?” One of the major hurdles in learning is that we think we understand what we are reading–a well-framed question can help us get over that hurdle by helping us see the issue in a brand new light or context.

3) Questions expose our presumptions and thoughtlessness. “Good Teacher,” the rich young man says to Jesus. “What must man do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ response? “Why do you call me good?” Jesus’ response (wherein he answers a question with a question) exposes the rich young man’s presuppositions and thoughtless remark. He said more than he knew, and the question exposes that.

4) Questions engender curiosity by pointing our attention to the unknown (yes, I said something like this below, but it bears repeating!). Ultimately, a question differs from a statement in that it gives us a hint of a reality that is enshrouded in mystery–the answer to the question can be known (hence the asking!), but it isn’t. At least not yet. As we are confronted by this unknown reality, our curiosity and thirst for understanding is awoken and we can begin to pursue knowledge. There is a sense of unrest or discontentment when we have questions without answers–discontentment that we must ultimately learn to be content with (see Job), but that we ultimately must also experience. Questions draw us out of our comfortable relationship with the world and make us aware of its other-ness, its distinctness. In a way, a question dignifies the world or the subject as an object (or subject!!!) that is different than ourselves, and that is worth knowing. The more we ask questions, the more we are able to love the object as we seek an understanding of it (which is why the criticisms that I am a terrible question asker have always hurt so much).

The role of questions in discussion (and in all of life) is central. We must become acquainted with the ability to explore below the surface, to engage others minds and hearts and to demonstrate our interest in them by acknowledging that we do not understand them. If we wish to have excellent discussions, there is no substitute for learning the art of the well-framed question.
Want to have Matthew speak to the leaders of your church, youth group, business, or school about leading discussions? Contact him at Matthew Dot L Dot Anderson At Gmail Dot Com. Rates are negotiable.

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