6 Reasons Asking Questions Makes You a Better Leader
Why the best leaders ask questions
Part 2: This is the second of a three-part series on how leaders can grow into living a question-led life.
In a world drowning in information, perhaps questions matter more than answers. Could a leader lead better—building trust and moving people together toward a common goal—not as the ultimate expert in the room, but as a guide for the growing understanding of the group?
Socrates described questions—and those who ask them—as midwives. They are not the mother or the child, but instead help others give birth to what is inside of them. In many ways, this is the role of Christian leaders, to come alongside and help people give birth to what God is creating in them.
In churches, in Bible study groups, and in Christian education, questions bring new thoughts to life, providing an assortment of group-building benefits.
Asking questions builds trust and deepens relationships
Good leaders cultivate trust. This can happen in many ways, but asking appropriate and meaningful questions—at the right time for the right reason to the right people—is one of the best. When we ask questions of others and truly want to engage with them, we communicate that they matter. It develops intimacy. It helps people to lean in. When leaders create safe places for others and invite their involvement, people feel comfortable to open up.
Asking questions embodies humility
The humblest leaders I know are the ones who ask questions frequently—and then have the discipline to stop talking and listen intently to the opinion of others. The encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well was life-altering for her, but the interaction was initiated when Jesus asked a question, “Will you give me a drink?” Many at the time would consider this conversation off limits. In fact, the woman expressed surprise that he designed to talk with her. Yet, with this question, Jesus humbly led with his own need.
Asking questions creates surprise … and discomfort
Socrates believed questions were like gadflies, which were known for biting horses and causing irritation. The discomfort would make the horse react. That old philosopher was happy to have the same effect on complacent Athenians.
Jesus also asked “gadfly questions” of his disciples and the religious elite. In the midst of a storm, when the disciples were afraid they would drown, he calmed the wind and the waves—and then asked a question: “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” A few chapters later, Peter tried to walk on water, but began to sink. When Jesus reached out to catch this impetuous disciple, he asked, “Why did you doubt?” Questions like these can sting, yet they force us to think differently and work to change our behavior. Such questions must be employed carefully, but they can sometimes bring about breakthrough moments. They can challenge old ways and inspire new thinking in ways that answers never could.
We find Jesus asking questions that bring about surprise and even appropriate discomfort. In John 6 the disciples grumble about how difficult it is to follow Jesus and follow his intense teachings. Instead of appeasing them and backpedaling from his previous statements, he looks at them and asks, “Does this offend you?” A few verses later, after some followers of Jesus turned away from him, he asks the Twelve, “You do not want to leave too, do you?” (John 6:60-67). As a leader, Jesus was not one to shy away from challenge—and questions were frequently the vehicle for challenging his listeners.
Asking questions encourages curiosity and stokes imagination
Questions can be billows blowing oxygen on a fading fire. They cultivate new ways of thinking, awakening latent desires and stoking people’s imagination. Jesus often asks questions that help people explore the rule and the reign of his Father: the kingdom of God. In the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast Jesus asks, “What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to?” (Luke 13:18-20). Jesus may be asking himself those questions, but he invites his hearers into the process, and he launches a journey of imagination with the stories and word-pictures that follow.
Asking questions invites us to voice our desires
“What do you want me to do for you?” Before he even asked the question, Jesus knew the man was blind, but he still wanted to hear what the man truly wanted (Mark 10:46-52). Questions can invite and even challenge us to voice what we desire. Even when the leader may know the answer, it’s important for people to verbalize what they long for.
Asking questions invites our participation
When we merely receive information, we’re generally in a passive posture. But when we’re asked questions, our brains are much more engaged. We are invited to participate. Haven’t you experienced this?
In public speaking, rhetorical questions have long been used to help draw people into what a presenter is communicating. The same is true in writing. (The apostle Paul was the master of rhetorical questions, especially in the book of Romans, in order to engage with the believers as they sought to understand the gospel). By asking questions—especially open-ended questions—we involve people at a more active level.
Questions give a kind of permission to others. We open a door for people to join in with our subject, at least mentally. And don’t you know this from your own leadership? When we give people permission, they feel valued; they are given confidence to engage and wonder, to imagine, dream, and process. They can be surprised and caught off guard. They can deepen their trust and intimacy with others. Questions invite. Questions lay out all the place settings at the dining room table and confidently exclaim to our dinner guests, “Dinner is served. Dig in!”
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