Can you remember a really good question you’ve been asked? How about the big questions that motivate you and what you do? Do you remember times when you were the person asking well-crafted questions?
I believe in the power of a good open and honest question. Like many others, I’ve been helped by Parker Palmer’s work around asking good questions. In his book, A Hidden Wholeness
(affiliate link), he says that to ask open and honest questions is to “expand rather than restrict the arena of exploration.” Whereas, closed questions, those that where we already know the answer or advice disguised as a question, all narrow the field and impeded broader discernment.
There are plenty of times when a good yes and no is appropriate. But there are plenty of times when what we really need is someone or a community to ask us good open and honest questions. This is what we refer to as a “query” in the Quaker tradition. These questions start from the place of believing that the person in discernment already has everything they need within them to find the answer. The question is meant as a possible tool to aid them in what they already have. The goal is to help them listen to the Inward Teacher.
A person who is able to ask good, open-ended questions, trusts that people and the commnities they work with already have all they need to do and be who they are meant to be.
Asking open-ended questions trusts in the abundance of God and the abundance of community.
Developing Big Questions
The practice of asking good questions is just that, a practice. It is something we have to work at and something we can develop over time. Yesterday, in my Food and Faith class at Guilford College, I walked students through one of my favorite exercises: the 8-10 big questions.
In the 8-10 big questions, I invite students to push themselves to get creative with challenging questions that pertain to the class. If you were to take a Food and Faith class right now, what kinds of questions would you want to answer for yourself? These aren’t questions to ask the teacher, these are your own questions, things that motivate your learning and research.
One example of a question like this might be:
“How do I draw on my particular faith tradition as a tool for liberation and social justice within the communities and organizations I live in?”
Here’s how Tiago Forte
describes these kinds of problems and questions:
“They are probably hard problems without simple answers. The answers are probably very different depending on the person or situation. They are “high context” problems. Answering them would unleash huge value for yourself and others.”
“The purpose of this exercise is not only to clarify them for yourself, but to help you formulate and frame them in a way that makes it as easy as possible for others to help you.”
Let me turn this back to you. What are some of your biggest questions you wrestle with in your life and work? If you were to take out a journal and write, what would be some of those questions that motivate you?
Asking Good Questions For Discernment
Another way we can look at questions are the questions that someone poses to you to help you in your process of discernment.
What was one of the best questions you’ve ever been asked?
Edwin Friedman in his book, The Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, notes that good leadership is always able to notice when a system is stuck because it is asking old questions or questions that are no longer relevant. Good leadership for Friedman is in part leadership that can identity these restrictive/closed questions and ask new ones in their place. New questions are the key to new ways of thinking, new possibilities, and the renewal of communities.
In Appreciative Inquiry (a community change model) they say that:
“Inquiry & change are simultaneous. Inquiry is intervention. The seeds of change…are implicit in the first question(s) asked.”
How about for you? When have you been offered a question that opened up the terrain of possibility for you?
A long time ago, Margaret Fell, the co-founder of Quakerism, said that it was upon hearing George Fox ask the question, “What Canst Thou Say?” that really opened up her to a new way of thinking about what it meant to be a person of faith. In that question she saw that faith was not about parroting back what others told her but about being able to speak and live according to what is true for oneself.
Here is how one central question shifted my entire life was the question (you can decide how open-ended it was):
In undergrad, I had theology professor (Dr. Herbert Dymale for those of you who knew him) who asked me what I wanted to do after I graduated. I responded by saying, “I want to become a pastor.” He asked, “What are you doing for work right now?” I told him that I was working at the Christian bookstore near the campus (I desperately needed to leave that job!). Dr. Dymale then asked, “Have you considered giving pastoral work a try now before you graduate?”
No. I hadn’t. The thought had literally never occurred to me.
Even though that seems really simple, what followed from that one simple question changed my life. I began looking for a church to work in and I found a small Evangelical Friends church in Akron, Ohio
. I didn’t know anything about “Friends” back then but knew that my undergrad had some connection to them. I applied and was hired in December of 2000. Not only did I learn that I loved doing pastoral work but it was where I became a Quaker. I figured if I was going to work in a Friends church I should know something about their tradition. It was in that research that I had the experience of feeling as though I had “been a Quaker all my life.” There was a profound sense of coming home.
Becoming a Quaker is one of the most important things that has ever happened to me not only from the perspective of what it means to find oneself on the inside of a faith community, but in terms of leadership formation, spiritual practice, and the rest of my work and research. Almost everything that makes up my life today pivoted from the question that Dr. Dymale asked me. I am sure he had no idea where it would take me but he could see that the terrain I was working with was too restrictive.
How about for you? How have good questions shaped your life? I’d love to hear from you if there was a question that had a profound impact on you.
I’ve developed a resource for the college that we use when we do trainings around how to host clearness committees (image a small group session where people ask you open-ended questions to help you work through an area of discernment). You may find some things useful to use in those resources