Ask Questions to Learn
We all likely know people who can get anyone to talk. They draw out stories and details with apparent ease. I believe knowing how to ask questions with the intent to learn is part of this skill.
My questions don’t always reflect genuine curiosity. At times they sound more like statements. I suspect I’ve unknowingly offended people because I’ve overreached and jumped into what they consider private territory. I want my questions to be an avenue through which my neighbors feel more cared for, not less.
Knowing how to learn through asking questions builds on the practice of holding a posture of humility. When I’m in the position of student, I’m acknowledging I don’t have all the answers.
I suggest that our questions be aimed at drawing out the other person’s story. What I want to know about my neighbors is how this earthly, physical life has shaped them. To better know who they are and love them well, I must ask questions that value their experiences.
When asking questions to learn, it helps to pay attention to three things.
1. Nonverbal communication. Body language and tone of voice matter. Leaning your body in toward the other person, making eye contact, even touching someone on the arm if appropriate, can convey care. Uncrossing arms and legs gives a sense of openness, while crossed arms can project hostility. Facial expression will be determined in part by the question, but generally, smiling and relaxing the face encourages conversation.
2. Setting. Surroundings dictate what is possible and appropriate. Is the place private enough for private subjects? Are the surroundings hospitable and comfortable for the person you’re speaking with?
3. Cultural context. We must always be aware of our own filters when entering conversations, including social norms, personality, and life experiences. We need to be culturally sensitive to what may be offensive to our neighbor. This might mean searching out reliable sources of information to help us understand the context of our neighbors’ lives.
May our questions demonstrate a love that counters the sound bites and reflexive responses so common in today’s world. As my pastor, Steve, says, “Jesus walked toward people.” Asking questions to learn is a way of walking toward people.
What do you need to be aware of (tone, body language, culture) when asking your neighbors questions?