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Fostering Conversations that Count: The Crucial Role of Questions

May 15th, 2007 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

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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Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.