Questions transform a small-group session from a lecture into an interactive and transformative encounterâ€”which should be our goal as facilitators of spiritual formation. Below are a few guidelines for developing and asking good questions in this particular context.
1. Good Questions Create a Conversation
Good questions create conversations without putting anyone in the spot. You don’t want participants to feel like they are in school, taking a test. You also don’t want a scenario where you are the learned teacher asking all the questions, and the participants are under pressure to know the answers you expect from them. This is not conducive to spiritual formation.
In contrast, some of the best discussion questions solicit input from everyone present. The best example of this is to ask people their personal opinion. There is no wrong answer to the question, “What do you think?”
Allowing people to discuss questions and process the answers themselves improves their rate of retention. It’s also a good idea builds relationships and trust amidst the group.
2. Good Questions Focus on One Thing
Make sure your questions are focused and clear. Here’s a poor example of how to address a topic: “In the movie, Chocolat, what impact does the chocolaterie have on the French village that closely adheres to tradition, how does the relationship between Vivien and Comte evolve over the forty days of Lent and what relevance does the story of rivalry and romance have for our lives?” Instead, break those questions down to make them transparent and invitational.
â€¢ What impact does the chocolaterie have on the community?
â€¢ How does the relationship between Vivien and Comte evolve?
â€¢ What relevance does the story have for our lives?
Rather than asking a multi-layered question, it’s best to ask just one simply question and wait for responses before asking the next thing.
3. Good Questions Can Be Understood By Everyone
As a facilitator, you want to keep the questions simple enough that everyone has a reasonable chance of knowing what you mean the first time you say it. So, the following won’t work very well: “In light of the current theological debate about religious pluralism, which is prevalent in many seminariesâ€”and other places as well,â€”how do you think we should respond to this debate in the church, in the our homes, in schools, and at the government level?”
It would be much better to ask, “How can we build a culture of respect and tolerance?”
4. Good Questions Are Open-Ended
A person can answer “yes” or “no” without engaging his or her brain. On the other hand, an open-ended question compels people to think about the facts of a text, or the situation. We utilize this principle in everyday life. Over dinner, if a parent asks his/her children, “How was school today?” they will respond “Fine.” And we’re done. But if the question is, “Tell me something interesting that happened today at school,” they have to focus on a specific incident, and a conversation begins. The same thing applies in group discussions.
5. Good Questions Involve Emotions
There is more to fostering spiritual formation than intelligence. In fact, the spiritual journey can be described as a journey from living and thinking from our heads to being people who are in touch with the intuitions and feelings of our heart. The spiritual formation process needs to invite people to get in touch with their emotions, and questions are a great way to do just that.
Some examples would be: “How do you feel about these issues?” “How do you react to that challenge?”
6. Good Questions Deal with People’s Interests
Sometimes it’s good to connect with the current interests and passions of your group. Here are some possible examples: â€œYY has had another great win in football/tennis/swimming, How does the experience of winning and losing speak to your spiritual life?â€™ “Several of you have been following the Downtown Abbey TV series; In what ways has the tension between tradition and change affected your family?â€
7. Good Questions Are Sometimes Answers to Other Questions
In any small-group setting, people direct questions to the facilitator. Even if you’ve done a good job of establishing that you are a co-learner and don’t have all the answers, people will still direct questions to you.
In response, it is often a good idea to answer their questions with a question of your own. Like: “What do you think about that?” or “Does anyone have a response to that?”
8. Good Questions are Powerful
Powerful questions can be the foundation of deep reflection and stirring discussion. Juanita Brown (2001) writes that good questions generate energy, open up possibilities, invite deeper exploration, have some personal connection, invite a variety of voices and create a certain dissonance between oneâ€™s current understanding and something bigger. For example
â€¢ How do you remain “faithful” to self, others and/or the vision you serve?
â€¢ What decisions face you that call for courage?
â€¢ When did a question or doubt about your faith actually end up strengthening it?
Powerful questions take time to craft so I suggest you collect great questions and use them to inspire your efforts to create the space for spiritual formation through powerful questions.