Column entry: Great Questions Strengthen Family Connections
Column Description: Let’s Talk Family: Conversations about Faith and Family Flourishing is a monthly column offering a space to consider research-based, biblically-sound practices for family communication. We all have families. And we all experience messy family communication from time to time. Our column focuses on what works and doesn’t work for helping families be a little less messy and a lot more rewarding. Please join the conversation.
Great Questions Strengthen Family Connections
“Where are you?” is the first question record in Scripture that God asks of man (Gen. 3:9). The question wasn’t to gain information, but something more important: God was seeking to connect with Adam. He was asking something like, “Can you tell me what you are thinking?” “What’s going on in your heart?”
Jesus asked lots of questions, too – exactly 307 according to a book called Jesus is the Question. Here are a few:
- “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?” (Matt. 5:46)
- “Why are you so afraid”? (Matt. 8:26)
- “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15)
Following the rabbinic model of the day, Jesus’s questions fulfilled many purposes. His questions confounded his opponents, expressed his emotions, and taught his disciples. Like God’s first question to Adam, Jesus’s questions to his disciples also sought to connect.
What’s a better way to connect with others than through meaningful questions? Questions, coupled with good listening, can draw out the deep plans of another person’s heart. They also can side-step defensiveness. Questions help others:
- Uncover blind spots or assumptions.
- Provide insights into alternative ways of acting or thinking.
- Learn and discover things about themselves.
As we fully participate in the question-listening process we communicate to others that they are loved and valued, creating a safe space for connection.
Are there types of questions we should avoid? Good question.
If your goal is to connect with someone, there are four types of questions that tend to shut down rather than open up conversation. Let’s look at each type and why we should usually avoid them.
- Yes/no questions. “Did you have a good day at school?” is an example of a yes/no question. Such close-ended questions—if not followed with additional questions—can shut off conversation. Using open-ended questions, such as “How was school today?” invites more conversation.
- Judgmental questions. “Why would you do that?” is an example of implied judgment (after all, a reasonable person would not have done that). We can ask what happened and about what motivated attitudes or behaviors, but it’s a good practice to do it in a way that avoids judgment.
- Rapid-fire questions. Asking a series of questions without providing the opportunity to answer can feel more like an interrogation than a time to connect.
- Leading questions. These questions impose an assumption into the question. They can be impossible to answer. Asking a teenager a question like, “when did you stop cheating on your homework” is a leading question because no matter what the answer is, it assumes that she was cheating. These kinds of questions go both ways. My (Jonathan’s) kids tease me with assumptive questions. After dinner a few nights ago, my 8-year-old—holding back a giggle behind a huge grin—“So, Daddy, can we have ice cream or cookies for dessert?”
Knowing what to avoid and what to do are different things. Here are some tips for setting up a connecting kind of conversation.
- Select a fitting time and location. It might not be a fitting time to ask your spouse the highlight of his day as your 3-year-old is in the midst of a temper tantrum for having to wait for dinner.
- Ask open-ended questions. “What was the best part of …?” or “How did that make you feel?” “Why is art class your favorite?” are examples of open-ended questions.
- Use the right tone and body language. The rule of reciprocity holds here. Harsh tone begets a harsh tone, but a soft tone begets a soft tone. Proverbs 15:1 reminds us: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Be physically connected as much as possible. Eye contact, touch, and an open body posture are often powerful ways to connect nonverbally.
Of course we’ve all had the experience of getting our open-ended questions shut down with a one-word response. We ask, “How are you?” and all we get is “fine,” “terrible,” “good.” Rather than get discouraged, we should try follow-up phrases: “tell me more” or “can you tell me why?” A sincere follow-up question signals that you are genuinely interested in connecting.
Questions connect. John C. Maxwell, author of many best-selling books on leadership, identifies asking “curious questions” as a key for connecting. He states that curious questions “help the other person know you’re engaged with them and want to keep the connection going.”
What are some good questions you’ve asked to build connections with others? What are your go-to follow-up probes? Would you agree that great questions strengthen family connections? We’d appreciate hearing from you.
—Jonathan Pettigrew and Diane M. Badzinski
Martin B. Copenhaver, Jesus is the Question: The 307 Questions Jesus Asked and the 3 He Answered (Nashville: Abingdon, 2014).
John C. Maxwell, “Five Steps for Connecting with Others,” May 14, 2019, https://www.johnmaxwell.com/blog/five-steps-for-connecting-with-others/