Gospel Relevance

Gospel-Centered Resources For The Gospel-Driven Life

How to Ask Better Questions

Note: The following is an excerpt from Scott Mehl’s new book, Loving Messy People.

How do we become better question-askers? Good question-asking begins with a genuine desire to know the other person and a love-fueled curiosity that stokes our creativity. At the same time, some of us need practical guidance to help jumpstart that creativity, especially when we’re out of practice. One of the ways people seek to get this kind of practical help is through lists of recommended questions.

Maybe you’d like me to provide you with “The top fifty questions to ask in gospel care.” But while lists like that can serve a purpose, I’ve never found them all that helpful in the real moments of life. Maybe it’s because my memory isn’t that great, or maybe it’s my embarrassment at the idea of carrying a list of questions around in my pocket, but it just doesn’t seem practical.

how to ask better questions

What I have found helpful, however, is thinking about questions in terms of broader categories. The Bible has a clear and simple (though not simplistic) explanation for what motivates everything we say, do, think, and feel. Put concisely, our behavior, thoughts, and emotions all stem from what the Bible calls our hearts. In addition, all of these behaviors, thoughts, and emotions inevitably take place in the context of our circumstances. To truly know a person, we need to be asking questions in all of these areas.

1. Ask Circumstance Questions: “What Happened?”

Circumstance questions are the questions we most commonly ask. We ask broad questions, like “How is work going?” and we ask specific questions, like “What did the doctor say?” But we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of understanding the circumstances people are experiencing. Circumstances provide the broad and specific context for all of their behaviors, thoughts, and actions. In fact, we can’t accurately understand a person’s actions, or the motives behind those actions, without grasping the circumstances in which those actions took place.

2. Ask Behavior Questions: “What Did You Do?”

Behavior questions are the most obvious personal questions we can ask. They have clear answers. Actions either took place or they didn’t. They’re far more concrete than thoughts or emotions. This is where specificity is so important. When we get vague answers to discrete questions it provides the opportunity for more specific questions. Don’t assume you know what a person means when they offer vague answers; make sure you know.

If, for example, you ask someone how they are doing in the area of sexual purity, don’t assume you know what the reply “Good!” means. To you, “good” might mean that they’ve stopped looking at porn. To them, however, it might mean that they are only looking at porn three times a week. There are countless different behavior questions that could be asked. Identify the ones that are the most important for knowing the person and their current struggle. Then take the time to make sure you fully understand the answers.

3. Ask Thought Questions: “What Were You Thinking?”

Now, of course, the tone of this question matters a lot. I don’t mean to suggest that your response to others’ actions should include screaming, “What were you thinking?”! What your response should include are questions that help you to understand their thought patterns. What we think about most reveals what our hearts are captivated by. When we spend our days repeatedly thinking about how much we hate our job, or about the house we wish we had, or about the ways that our spouse has disappointed us, it reveals something we’re longing for; it points us back to the motivations of our hearts. Helping people to identify the patterns in their thought lives can help us to know them and understand their struggles in powerful ways.

4. Ask Emotion Questions: “What Were You Feeling?”

Emotion questions aren’t just for “emotional people.” We’re all emotional people, created in the image of a God who himself expresses emotions. Even the most logical and rational people I know can become quite frustrated when others aren’t similarly rational or their logic breaks down. While the logic itself may be unemotional, the frustration is as emotional as it gets.

Questions that help you to understand what others are feeling give you insight into both the circumstances they’re experiencing and the heart motivations that produce their responses. When asking emotional questions, it’s particularly helpful to ask about the past as well as the present. “Is this the first time you’ve ever felt that way?” “What has caused you to feel that way before?” “Do you feel that way often?” Asking about a person’s past helps you to know and understand them even more fully, since who someone is today isn’t just a set of facts but the result of a story.

5. Ask Heart Questions: “What Are You Worshiping?”

If we are to truly know one another and care for one another’s souls, we can’t stop short of asking the deepest questions: we have to ask heart questions. Heart questions are not only the hardest to ask, they can also be the hardest to think of. We’re not going to get very far by simply asking someone, “What are you worshiping?” We’ll probably get a blank stare and a confused, “I don’t know” (just like when I ask my kids, “Why did you do that?”).

We need insightful questions that help reveal a person’s motives. We need questions that help us understand what people value and desire most and, therefore, what they worship.

This is where an exception to my dislike of lists comes in. David Powlison was one of the most insightful observers of human beings I’ve come across, and he compiled a list of what he called “X-Ray Questions” that can help us develop creative and contextually appropriate heart questions. Here is a sampling to give you an idea of what good heart questions might look like:

What do you seek, aim for, and pursue?

What are your goals and expectations?

What do you fear?

What do you think you need?

Where do you find refuge, safety, comfort, escape, pleasure, security?

On whose shoulders does the well-being of your world rest?

Whom must you please?

What gives your life meaning?

What do you see as your rights?

Where do you find your identity?

Hopefully you can see at this point that there are lots of questions to ask. Unfortunately, many of us get stuck in just one of these categories, so we end up asking only one type of question. Some of us tend to ask only circumstance questions, others only behavior questions, and others only emotion questions. But in order to truly know someone well we need to take the time to ask all these different kinds of questions.

Again, there’s no script. There’s no list of fifty questions to ask in every situation. But hopefully these categories will give you some guidance and help to expand the types of questions you tend to ask. If you’re equipped with these categories and you have love-fueled curiosity, you’ll be able to love others and get to know them in ways you never realized were possible. You’ll hear the song like you’ve never heard it before. You’ll be ready to play notes you never thought of playing before. You’ll be engaging in the art of gospel care.

Note: This post is an excerpt from Scott Mehl’s new book, Loving Messy People.

About David Qaoud

David Qaoud (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary) is associate pastor of Bethesda Evangelical Church in St. Louis, Missouri, and founder of gospelrelevance.com. His work has appeared on The Gospel Coalition, For the Church, and Banner of Truth. He lives in St. Louis with his wife and son. You can follow him on Twitter.