Asking Good Questions

Mentors, especially when they are in teaching mode, will often ask questions of their mentees for educational purposes. Such questions can catalyze in the mentee thinking about a subject the mentor wants him/her to more deeply understand. Such questions are obviously important in a teaching context but we will be addressing the value of questions for really getting to know the other, especially of their story, their narrative that ties together the key moments or phases of their past.


Socrates questioning people in the Areopagus

Three Kinds of Questions

1. Closed Questions

Essence of a closed question is that it can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.”

There is nothing inherently wrong with closed questions. They are useful when targeted information is needed. For example, nurses have got to understand a patient’s health history exactly and so they will often ask a series of closed questions: Have you had diabetes? Have any relatives had cancer? Are you allergic to any drugs?

For mentors, seeking to know their mentees, there are times when closed questions are right and proper. For example: “Have you been baptized? Confirmed? Do you go to Mass on Sundays? Have you been a Catholic all of your life?

Closed questions can also be used to clarify a person’s comments. For example, the mentee might be discussing about how much time she has spent reading catechetical material and the mentor asks: “You have read the Catechism of the Catholic Church then?

The problem with closed questions, from the standpoint, of getting to know the mentee is as follows: seldom reveal the contours and trajectory of a person’s story.

  • They center on fulfilling the question askers desire for particular information but do not result in drawing out the narrative arc of a person’s life, the plot lines.
  • They result in information about the person, but not a depth of interior life.
  • Question asker is in control with such questions, not the one responding. The parameters are tight. Basically, just “yes” or “no.” As such the questions do not provide a context for the respondent to truly open up.

2. Leading Questions

These are questions that suggest or prompt an answer. They are more open ended than closed questions but with them question askers steer the response in directions they believe are valuable or provide a set of answers they believe are correct.

Often leading questions are framed up on the heels of statements the question asker makes about his/her own preferences that suggest the “correct” answer.

“Isn’t the music at Mass wonderful?!”

“I feel such a change of mood in the country after the election, don’t you?”

“F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, portrays such a moral wasteland. I would not let my younger kids read it. Would you?”

Leading questions are also often framed up as options:

“Are you a fan of country music, hard rock, soft rock or classical?”

Journalists do this very frequently frame up options during their interviews:

Interview with a soldier who wrote a memoir about his experiences during the war in Iraq: “Was your decision to enlist as a young man more from a sense of patriotism or more from a sort of boyish desire for adventure?”

These kinds of questions are a serious pet peeve of mine because the answer could be both or neither! It could be that the young man was told by God to go. Could be that he needed the money!

Now, there is a time and a place for leading questions if they are offered with sincere respect for the person, a desire for their good. Parents often need to ask leading questions to guide effectively their children, for example.

But the problem with leading questions is that they reflect the mind and opinions of the question asker and often do not succeed in authentically drawing out the respondent’s own mind, belief, opinions, feelings.

3. Open-ended questions

These are questions that encourage a full, meaningful answer using the subject’s own knowledge and/or feelings.

“Tell me about yourself.” “What is your background?” “Why did you come here?”

Such questions invite a depth of response. They do not interject the question asker’s own beliefs or opinions into the answer. They don’t frame up options for the respondent to choose from.

Now, open-ended questions that are without context can be too broad at times and thus confusing. For example, a question that comes from Dr. Vincent Hendricks, a professor of logic, to illustrate this point: “what is the world’s most important doctrine?” Doctrine about what? Political, religious, economic? Such a question is too open ended.

So, the best kind of open-ended questions do provide context, a basic orientation. In this sense they do lead, but in a way that invites the person to authentically share. They lay the table of a topic minimally but for the sake of drawing out full response from the other about that topic.



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Luke is co-creator of ActivPrayer and Executive Director of Inscape, an organization that he co-founded with Dr. Joshua Miller. Visit his Speaker page here.

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