Asking Better Questions
in Ministry and Discipleship
An unusually helpful resource I have discovered of late is 'The Coaching Habit' by Michael Bungay Stanier, longtime business coach and consultant with vast experience in his field. The subtitle of the book pretty much says it all: Say Less, Ask More, and Change the Way You Lead Forever.
The thesis is that managers/leaders of any stripe can be more effective if they simply learn to ask good questions and then get out of the way. Stanier proceeds to GIVE YOU THE QUESTIONS! Chapter by simple and light hearted chapter, the actionable gold just keeps coming.
Why It Matters to Me
I often have difficulty in one on one sessions of spiritual direction, pastoral counseling, etc. I tend to talk too much and listen too little. The advice giving, answer-man approach is ever my bane, and is not only annoying to the poor persons I minister to, but is also ineffective. People gain more by talking it out and arriving at their own answers...with some minimal but targeted guidance. I've always known this, but have lacked tools and disciplines to effectively change. That's why this book has been such a helpful blessing.
'The secret sauce," says Stanier, 'is building a habit of curiosity. The change of behaviour that’s going to serve you most powerfully is simply this: a little less advice, a little more curiosity.'
Being legitimately curious of others is always a winning approach, in my experience.
Stanier is speaking mainly to managers who oversee team members in work environments. However, his practical guidance has proven very helpful for me in the pastoral settings and conversations which constitute so much of my life and work.
'Be lazy...avoid the Advice Monster. Help people quickly figure out their own paths.'
Seven questions to turn from an advice-giving, unhelpful manager, into a helpful and useful coach:
1) What's on your mind?
This question cedes 'power' and gives the report/employee/directee/disciple freedom to set the agenda and articulate what's on their mind.
2) And what else...?
This draws out greater clarity and allows them more opportunity to articulate their real concerns. (*Remember to acknowledge the person’s answers before you leap to the next “And what else?”)
3) What's the real challenge here FOR YOU?
This question helps sharpen the focus and gets more personal.
4) What do you want?
Do not assume you know; do not assume they know. This question clarifies desires and aims. It challenges the other person become more of a protagonist in their own journey. (*Answer question for yourself too)
5) How can I help?
This question cuts through assumptions which can often be false, and gives you the clarity to know if and how you are actually in a position to help. (*Too much of your day is spent doing things you think people want you to do)
6) If you're saying Yes to this, what are you saying No to?
This question is a gentle but clear reminder that every decision is a trade-off and helps clarify what is really at stake.
7) What was most useful FOR YOU?
Answering this question extracts what was useful, shares the wisdom and embeds the learning. Without this question, you fail to capture the 'aha' moment and extract the value. "People don’t really learn when you tell them something. They don’t even really learn when they do something. They start learning, start creating new neural pathways, only when they have a chance to recall and reflect on what just happened.... Your job as a manager and a leader is to help create the space for people pull back, find the insight, make the connections, and have those learning moments."
Another great tip from the author is to use these questions to answer convoluted emails. It could sound like:
- “Wow, there’s a lot going on here. What’s the real challenge here for you, do you think?”
- “I’ve scanned your email. In a sentence or two, what do you want?”
- “Before I jump into a longer reply, let me ask you: What’s the real challenge here for you?”
I've begun using some combination of these questions in one on one pastoral sessions, and they have really helped me serve better.
While these 'coaching habit' questions are no substitute for the substantive and invested relational demands of discipling, they make a nifty supplement. Within Christian contexts of discipleship and ministry, they provide a helpful framework which, combined with insights from prayer and Scripture, can contribute to better mentoring and discipling of others.
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