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A Master at Asking Questions

Healthy Leaders

A Master at Asking Questions

Stephen MayersStephen Mayers
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“What’s this conversation about that you’re having as you walk along?” Jesus had just asked this question of two disciples walking on the road to Emmaus. They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, Cleopas, answered Him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” And He said to them, “What things?” (Luke 24:17-19)

Jesus wanted to find out more than the topic of their conversation and what had taken place in Jerusalem. He wanted to hear what had taken place in their understanding of the events. Rather than jumping in with a correct version, He first asked some open-ended questions – “What’s this conversation about? What things have taken place?” Only after asking and listening did He volunteer a different perspective.

The truth of the matter is that it’s often very helpful to let someone verbalize what he thinks about a situation before offering answers. It’s often the case that when we hear our thoughts out loud they become clearer, more defined. But more importantly, they become more real to us.

Not only did Jesus have a clearer understanding of what these two disciples were thinking, and what they did and did not understand – so did they! And, when self-awareness increases, so does the motivation to do something with it.

At this point in the conversation, Jesus turned from a listening-coaching approach to a mentoring approach. He shares what has really taken place that until then was beyond their understanding. Their hearts burned within them as a result! They were anxious to share their new understanding with others. But this renewed motivation didn’t start with a teaching. It all started with a question!

We need to have the right tool for the right job. As leaders we have lots of tools: Preach, Teach, Give Advice, Mentor, Counsel. We’re pretty good at the last part of the conversation above; the part where Jesus tells them the meaning of the events. When someone asks for help – and sometimes even when they don’t – it is very easy for us (well, at least me) to share my “great wisdom” and “depth of knowledge,” along with my “clear opinions.”

Perhaps at times like these we should first take a humility pill. Instead of using one of our “telling” tools, we as leaders would do well to use a different tool that’s often missing: Coaching! I have found coaching to be a wonderful addition to my leadership tool kit.

Coaching is a conversational process that helps others use their own knowledge, draw from their own previous experience and think through possible options, decisions and actions using the art of listening and asking good, pertinent questions.

Jesus was a master at asking questions rather than always giving answers. To Peter He said, “Who do you say that I am? To the lawyer who questioned, “How do I inherit eternal life?” Jesus replied with a question, “What is written in the law?” Then in response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan and asked, “Who acted as a neighbor to the one who fell among robbers?”

In the synagogue He asked, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” How many times did Jesus ask, “Where is your faith?” Questions starting with what, where, when and how always draw out what a person already knows and understands, and even his true motivations.

An amazing thing is that the coaching approach can be useful for all kinds of issues and in all kinds of relationships, including marriage and family, not just ministry or with our staff.

Instead of giving advice, the coaching approach listens and asks for understanding through open questions first, rather than sharing opinions and making judgments. Another amazing thing is how often when coaching I have found that the “coachees” actually come up with solutions that are better than I would have generated.

Not only that, they are more motivated to act on their own ideas than what I might have proposed. They are also more likely to actually follow through with action plans that they created.