Improving Your Interest Rate:
The Irresistible Power of a Great Question
Among the essential skills of effective pastors and leaders is the ability to turn a good question into a great one. Here are eight characteristics of great questions.
By Robert C. Crosby
David could predict his daughter’s response. The daily dull ritual frustrated something deep within him. When picking up his 12-year-old daughter at school every afternoon, this caring dad wanted one thing — to simply engage his daughter in some meaningful conversation. Somehow, however, it was becoming even more difficult to get one started.
“So, honey, how was your day today?”
“Did you have a good day?”
“Hmm … I guess.”
A tedious quiet entered the car at this point and enveloped them both the rest of the way home — day after day, week after week. David hoped his questions would have inspired something more than this. Precious moments were passing. When he shared his dilemma with me, his pastor, he wanted to know: Was the problem that he could no longer relate to his almost teenage daughter or had he simply chosen the wrong topics to talk about?
I was convinced it was none of the above. The problem was not generational, but conversational — a mistake often made by parents and pastors. It was not a matter of the topic he chose, but more so the tone and technique. While his questions were well intentioned, they were falling flat. My advice to David at first may have sounded a bit more financial than parental:
“You need to improve your interest rate.”
David’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”
“Instead of asking a general question the same way you may ask it of a hundred people you pass in the hall,” I said, “think of a simple way to make the question more interesting and intriguing. Before you ask, give a little more thought to what she might like you to ask her or how. Sharpen the edges of your question and see what happens.”
The next day, instead of asking his daughter for the umpteenth time the all-too-predictable, “So, how was school?” question, David asked a sharper-edged question: “Sweetheart, what was the best thing that happened to you at school today?”
The results were immediate. When he told me, he was ecstatic. The first time he asked his daughter this question, her response was enthusiastic. In fact, he told me she was still talking with him about it for several minutes after they got home. This was a big win for this dad. As a result of this new approach, their relationship was energized and renewed. David had discovered the secret of turning a good question into a great one.
Questions — a Powerful Tool
Questions are one of the most powerful, and perhaps underused, tools in a pastor’s (or parent’s) toolbox. Just 5 minutes of expressing interest in others will do more to build your relationship than 5 months of trying to get him or her interested in you.
Questions are invitations. As clearly as an invitation opens the door of your house to a friend to attend a birthday party, bridal shower, or backyard barbecue, questions invite people in. They evoke response. Questions engage. Effectively formed and sensitively placed, they construct an atmosphere of interest that draws on the hidden resources, potentials, and needs of a person’s soul.
Jesus consistently utilized great questions and, as a result, spent much of His time asking them. He interspersed no fewer than 14 questions in the Sermon on the Mount alone (Matthew 5 – 7). Some of His questions in the Gospels included:
- “To what shall I compare this generation?” (Matthew 11:6).
- “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?” (Mark 8:36).
- “What would you have me do for you?” (Matthew 20:32).
Questions have a way of cutting through the busy debris of life and drawing on what really matters. Effectively posed from pastor to parishioner or parent to child, I have watched great questions relieve emotional loads, open closed minds, and brighten faces with renewed excitement and interest.
Great Questions: Eight Characteristics
Great questions carry certain characteristics. Among the essential skills of effective pastors and leaders is the ability to turn a good question into a great one. This involves understanding what makes a great question truly great. The right question asked of the right person at the right time can do much to draw out fresh and meaningful insight, initiative, and creativity. The wise pastor will use questions to challenge and inspire his or her team to greatness.
Asking rather than telling, questions rather than answers, has become the key to leadership excellence and success in the 21st century. Peter Drucker, considered the leadership guru of the 20th century, notes that “the leader of the past may have been a person who knew how to tell, but certainly the leader of the future will be a person who knows how to ask.”1
Imagine the potential open doors and new ideas latent within the minds and hearts of your church members, board members, and pastoral team. Many are just a question away. Understanding what makes a great question truly great is a big step toward strengthening your effectiveness as a leader.
What characterizes truly great questions? What sets them apart? Effective leaders recognize that great questions are:
Fueled by genuine interest. The apostle Paul said: “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3,4). In other words, it’s time to improve your “interest” rate.
Refreshing your interest in the lives, thoughts, ideas, and opinions of the people around you requires a bit of wonder on your part. Take time to wonder about other’s thoughts and experiences. Ask yourself:
- I wonder how their day went?
- I wonder what their greatest joys are? Their greatest challenges?
- I wonder what ideas and dreams they hold?
- I wonder what they fear or worry about?
- I wonder what they are hoping for?
- I wonder what question they most need me to ask?
These questions and others work wonders when it comes to getting us out of ourselves and interested in others. These questions enliven our sensitivities and create an intrigue that inspires great questions and motivates great question asking. They inform our topics and inspire our tone.
Not answered merely with a yes or no. Nothing will slow down a conversation much more than a pastor or leader who asks questions that a person can answer with one word. Such questions are not just simple; they are simplistic. They merely search out facts while failing to engage the personalities, minds, or opinions of another. The best questions are open-ended ones that inspire sentences of response.
Razor-sharp. Great questions effectively elicit a response. Vagueness will shut down openness and cut off responsiveness in communication. The best questions do more than seek information; they seek specific information. If you were a youth pastor, for example, which of the following questions would you most want your senior pastor to ask you:
“So, what’s your vision for this youth ministry?” or “If you and your youth group could do one thing to serve this community and be guaranteed it would succeed, what would you like to do?” (Notice how this question removes any concern of fear or failure that may hinder thinking.)
Great questions are provocative. They are thoughtfully, specifically, and strategically designed to draw out the heartfelt ideas, opinions, notions, feelings, concerns, dreams, issues, and perspectives of the person you are asking. Few things are duller than a dull question. Keep them sharp by being specific.
Usually not begun with the word why. Too often we tend to ask “why” questions much too early in a conversation. (It is often one of the first questions we ask our parents as toddlers — Why?) Like a submarine suddenly electing to dive straight to the ocean’s floor without adjusting the cabin pressure, why questions tend to go for too much too quickly. They tend to suddenly overwhelm instead of carefully inquire. They storm into places where angels fear to tread, without thought or consideration of the readiness or responsiveness of the individual being asked.
For example, a husband may abruptly ask his wife, “Why are you so uptight?”
However, if he is wise, he may ask: “You seem to have a lot on your mind. Would you like to sit down, have a cup of coffee, and talk about it?”
It is clear which of these would garner the best response.
Sometimes followed by a pause. Do not be afraid if the person initially meets your question with silence. Sometimes a pause precedes the most honest answers. (Some sociologists call this the “pregnant pause.”) Instead of hurriedly interpreting quietness as nonresponsiveness, give the question a chance to sink in a bit. The pause may mean they need a moment to think before responding. Perhaps your question is a penetrating one.
To hurriedly or nervously interject follow-up questions may short-circuit the genuine initial responses that you need to hear. Ask, and then wait. You may be surprised at what you hear.
Not leading questions. Great questions are invitations, not cattle prods. Inquiry does not mean interrogation. It is easy to fall into the trap of using questions to compel a person to come to our conclusions, instead of genuinely getting a sense of what he or she is thinking and feeling. Teams, however, can often tell when you are driven by preconceived intentions. Such an approach used too frequently is disingenuous at best, and often intimidating.
Drawn from great motives. Before you ask a team member a question, first ask yourself: What is motivating me to ask this question of this person right now? More often than not, the tone of a question is even more important than the topic. What is fueling the question? Curiosity? Boredom? Anger? Interest? Suspicion? Hope? Concern? Frustration? The motive behind a question colors the tone in which you ask it.
“A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver” (Proverbs 25:11). In other words, asking the right question of the right person at the right moment with the right tone for the right reasons can produce something amazing.
Provocative. Great questions provoke us to think and to action. There is a story of Steve Jobs, a young CEO, who was trying to build his executive team in the early days at Apple Computer. When he met with one executive from PepsiCo he had his eye on, he struggled to find a way to convince the well-paid corporate leader to make a midlife career change. A little desperate, Jobs asked, “John, do you want to spend the rest of your life making sugared water, or do you want to change the world?”
What a question: specific, provocative, and challenging. Jobs did the work of turning his good questions into a great one. As a result, he found himself with a new team member.
David’s frustration with his daughter’s monosyllabic answers led him to ask a question. This question was not for her, but one he needed to ask himself: What would be a better way to ask my daughter a question? What would be a more intriguing way to word it for her?
Effective church leaders not only ask their teams and families great questions; they ask themselves great ones. Here are a few great questions for starters:
- What is the best question I have asked my team this week?
- What question does my team most need me to ask today?
- Which question has my wife/daughter/son responded to the best recently?
- How could I make my questions to my team and family even more effective?
And, while you are at it, remember, leaders do not just tell; they ask.
1. Michael Marquardt, Leading With Questions: How Leaders Find the Right Solutions By Knowing What to Ask (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005), 23,24.