For People’s Lives to Change We Must Change Our Questions
Who do you know who asks great questions?
What do they do to cultivate those good questions?
What is it about the power of a question?
Have you ever wondered why we don’t ask thoughtful and significant questions in our culture more often?
Is it that we don’t know how? Are we too impatient, prideful, uninterested, or unaware? Or are we fearful – afraid of what we might find out about others – or ourselves?
What might it say about a leader who doesn’t ask questions?
What might questions provide in leadership roles that answers simply cannot?
What if the current paradigm of leader-as-expert was replaced with the paradigm of leader-as-lead-questioner?
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The late organizational guru Peter Drucker said, “The leader of the past may have been the person who knew how to tell, but certainly the leader of the future will be a person who knows how to ask.” With the heavy use of the internet and the pervasive presence of smartphones and other devices, availability of information is, quite literally, at our fingertips. With our advancing technology – now even with A.I. – we don’t even need our fingers. With a voice command, we are capable of retrieving information faster and more easily than at any time in human history. With the ubiquity of Google, do we really need leaders who need to know all the right answers? And if we are looking for better answers, should we not start by asking better questions?
In its least common denominator, leadership is about trust and connection. It’s ultimately not about charisma, education, or brilliance. It’s not about gravitas or title or prestige. In this cultural moment, with too much information, fraught with cynicism and too little trust and connection, we don’t need smarter or more eloquent or more efficient leaders; instead, we need wiser, deeper, more engaged leaders.
Wisdom is developed and depth is cultivated not by knowing all the answers, but by cultivating humility to learn, insatiable curiosity to observe, patience to listen, compassion to see and hear others, and the courage to wonder. Few things create the foundation of connection and relationship more than humility. Wisdom is gained in the quality and the frequency of the questions we ask of ourselves, of God, and others. Wise leaders ask questions. I’m convinced that what the world so desperately needs right now are leaders who ask the right questions at the right time to the right people for the right reason. The challenge and invitation for us as leaders in our current age is this: can we see the importance and significance of asking honest, compassionate, incisive, courageous questions of God, ourselves, and others?
Questions are a gift we offer to others. When people ask you questions – and truly care to know you and your story, it’s a gift – a valuable gift – isn’t it? Asking great questions gives hope, opens up new possibilities, adds value, cultivates opportunities for deeper connection, and provides meaning to others and ourselves. Like a surgeon uses a scalpel to make an incision on a patient in the operating room to provide healing, leaders can deftly use questions like a scalpel on people’s hearts. I’ve found that the greatest questions asked are personal – so personal that they draw blood, not to hurt or cause damage, but to bring healing.
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The Greek philosopher Socrates (469 to 399 BC) is considered one of the founders of Western philosophy. His method of question-asking, the Socratic method, placed a high value on inquiry-based dialogue that led to learning. He used questions to draw out conclusions from others that could not have occurred through mere answers. Socrates died at the age of 71 because people, specifically three men, Anytus, Meletus, and Lycon, viewed him as a threat. He stood trial and was found guilty, ultimately forced to drink poisonous hemlock. Why? Because he asked questions. People believed that Socrates’ questions, not his answers, poisoned the minds of the youth of Athens.
Socrates often used two metaphors to describe the role of questions. The first was a horsefly, intended to sting people to get their attention – and to get them moving. The second was that of a midwife. Socrates’ mode of inquiry-based dialogue, a method that draws ideas and perspectives out of someone, is called the maieutic (may–oo-dek) method. Maieutic comes from the Greek word which means midwife. Socrates’ mother was a midwife. He, too, believed that through his questions, he was a midwife, drawing out new life with others. The best questions are so powerful they either sting or bring new life – and sometimes both.
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In our Christian faith, Jesus is identified as many things: savior, Lord, redeemer, rescuer, master teacher – even leader. And many in our culture are quick to revere him as the Answer Man. Even our bumper stickers claim Jesus is the answer to all of our questions. But few, if any, see Him as the Man of Questions. As Christians, we study Jesus’ miracles, stories, parables, teachings, healings, and interactions with others. But how many of us have devoted significant time to exploring Jesus’ questions? There is rich learning to be had by exploring the questions Jesus asked, as well as the way He asked them and the impact those questions had on His listeners.
If we are to follow Jesus and lead others to follow Him as well, wouldn’t it be wise to learn to emulate His question-asking posture? Answers, most certainly, continue to play an important role in our world. We need answers. But Jesus – the savior of the world – was full of questions. Consider some of the questions He asked: Which of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Why are you so afraid? What do you want me to do for you? Do you want to get well? But what about you? Who do you say that I am? What are you looking for? Do you love me?
There is hardly a page in the Gospels where Jesus wasn’t asking at least one question. The Gospels record that Jesus asked over 300 questions. It also records that He was asked over 180 questions – yet He only directly answered 5. Roughly 1% of the time Jesus answered a question directed toward him. And yet he was quick to ask hundreds of questions of others.
May we be the kinds of humble and wise leaders who ask questions – questions the way Jesus asked them – for when we do our lives will change, as will the lives of those we interact with.