The Art of Asking Questions

I recently attended a remote one-hour workshop on Facilitated Dialogue led by Rachel Viscomi from the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program. One piece of guidance she shared was that when facilitating dialogue among a group of people it’s important to slow things down. One way to slow things down and enhance understanding is to ask more questions. And then she shared a slide with this heading on it:

“Keep Calm and Ask More Questions”

            This piece of wisdom can be used in many circumstances and conversations, not just in facilitated dialogue. When we are involved in mediation work with churches it is imperative that we ask many questions. When we are assisting/coaching clergy in understanding Bowen Family Systems Theory and they share about their family of origin, we use questions as a tool for them to explain the patterns of behaving/functioning that they developed as they grew up. And as they share, we ask more questions that may lead them to see the bigger picture of their family’s (parents, grandparents, ancestors) challenges and strengths.

            As I was participating in Clergy Clinic in Family Emotional Process led by Lombard Mennonite Peace Center, I recognized that my relationship with my father was emotionally distant. Yet, I didn’t know how to go about bridging some of that distance. I started to understand that some of this distance was simply because I did not know my father very well. It was then that I explored the idea of interviewing my dad to get to know him better. But interviews involve questions. And what questions would I even know to ask my father?

Fortunately, a friend suggested I use Grandpa, Tell Me Your Memories which is a resource that provides hundreds of questions to ask and can easily be used for interviewing other people than just your grandfather.

            And it worked! Conducting an interview with my dad helped to bridge some of the distance that had existed between him and me. Since that interview, I have been able to ask my dad more and more questions which has helped our relationship deepen.

            When facilitating mediation with churches we often will introduce our time by reading a passage from Philippians 2, focusing on verse 4, “Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others.” And a primary way we look to the interests of others is by asking them questions. We become curious and allow open-ended questions to deepen our understanding of one another.

            I think of Jesus who was a master at asking questions. In the book Jesus is the Question, the author Martin Copenhaver shares this fascinating detail of Jesus’ ministry: “According to the Gospels, Jesus asks 307 different questions, is asked only 183 questions, and answers fewer than 10 of those he is asked.” Jesus’ use of questions helped to deepen relationships, disarm tensions, and help people define themselves better.

Going into the holiday season, maybe this phrase “Keep Calm and Ask More Questions” could be a way for us to deepen our relationships with family and friends as we gather. It’s another tool in our peacemaker toolkit. We just have to remember to use it. Holiday Blessings,

–Tammy Martens