In our Biblical Counseling training program, our students are taught the importance of asking good questions. A good question will get the to the heart of a person and help them to understand the motives behind their actions. We ask questions because the answers give us information, and because good questions cause the person being asked to engage his brain and come up with an answer.
One of the important instructions we give is to avoid asking “why” questions. Why not ask why? Think about it. What is the most common response you receive when you ask someone why they’ve said or done something? Invariably, their answer is an excuse (often cleverly disguised as an explanation) or the phrase, “I don’t know.” Every parent knows this is true!
“Why” questions offer the respondent the opportunity to rationalize and justify their actions. When a child is asked why they’ve hit their sibling, the usual response is something like, “They made me mad!” We then typically follow up with something along the lines of, “Why did they make you mad?” And thus begins an almost endless cycle of rationalization and emotionalism.
Effective questions will reveal the hidden motives of the heart and will reveal things that may even be hidden from the child due to the deceitfulness of their own heart. We are all very effective at self-deception, and our hearts continually lie to us. Therefore, at times, it is necessary to be shaken up in the process of examination by others.
We find our example for how to ask questions by looking at God’s dealings with our spiritual ancestors, Adam and Eve. After the first couple had eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they realized they were naked. They were aware of what they had done and sought to hide from God and from each other (Genesis 3:6-8). God’s interaction with them is interesting. Being God, He is all-knowing (omniscient) and knows exactly what Adam and Eve have done and where they are hiding. Yet, He doesn’t find and accuse them!
Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:8-9)
With that one question God calls them to account. He offers them an opportunity to reveal themselves both physically and spiritually.
Adam replied, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” (Genesis 3:10)
This was not news to God, yet again He uses questions to call Adam to account for his disobedient actions:
God said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” (Genesis 3:11)
This is akin to the mother who finds her young child in the kitchen with cookie crumbs on his face. Mother knows what has taken place, but if she is wise she will use this opportunity to teach her child to be accountable for his actions by asking questions to which she already knows the answer, rather than following up with the question, “Why did you do that?”
A mother should follow the pattern of Genesis 3:13 and ask as God did, “What is this you have done? Have you disobeyed me? Did you take a cookie when I said not to?” This would be a better alternative to the commonly asked “why” question. When the child responds, this offers the opportunity for teaching, correcting, and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16). There may, of course, be discipline involved for disobedience to bring about the eventual harvest of righteousness in the child’s life.
There is no doubt this will take many hours out of a parent’s day, but this is what parenting is about! Asking good questions will eliminate the majority of the excuse making that goes on in our relationships with other people and will teach us to deal with each other honestly and directly. These are opportunities for growth and change and a foundation of good communication.
If you struggle with knowing how to ask good questions, you might consider picking up a copy of the little booklet I wrote on the subject. It contains suggestions for questions to ask in a variety of situations, and will help you to understand further the basis for and the importance of asking good questions.