A Good Question

Avoid common pitfalls of small group discussions

by Heather Holleman

I had prepared well to lead one of my first Bible studies. I had handouts, a list of great questions to ask, and a batch of homemade cookies to pass around. After some small talk, I asked my first question and looked out at the women seated around the room. Silence.

I asked the question again. Someone rustled the pages of her Bible: another woman twirled her pen. More silence. The next hour was long, awkward, and ultimately unproductive. If you've ever led a discussion, whether in a Bible study, a Sunday school class, or a seminar, you know the painful silence that can occur after posing a question.

When no one responds, you may wonder, Why is everyone so quiet? Why do they answer some questions and not others? What am I doing wrong?

After years of leading discussion workshops and small-group Bible studies, I've realized that the way a question is phrased often makes the difference between an energized discussion and an awkward staring contest. My problem as a beginning Bible study leader was that I didn't know how to ask good questions; I had fallen victim to many of what I call the "seven pitfalls of asking questions." When preparing for a Bible study, class, or seminar, you may want to filter your questions through these pitfalls and apply the corresponding principles to make sure you've put your questions into the best possible form.

Pitfall 1: Closed Questions

The first mistake we often make when leading discussions is asking closed questions. A closed question is one with an obvious, usually one-word answer. For example, during a discussion about John 4 -- the woman-at-the-well story -- you might ask the closed question, "To whom is Jesus talking?"

This kind of question is almost always met with silence. Although everyone knows the answer, no one offers it. Why? Because people feel silly answering questions to which everyone knows the correct response. They might also think responding to the question is a waste of time because arriving at the answer doesn't require discussion.

Principle: Ask questions that allow for various answers.

If a question has only one obvious answer, rephrase it to enable multiple responses. Instead of asking, "To whom is Jesus talking?" you might ask, "Is it significant that Jesus is talking to a Samaritan woman? Why or why not?" this question permits group members to discuss responses ranging from the significance of Jesus talking to any person to the implications of Him conversing with a woman, especially a Samaritan woman.

Pitfall 2: Insignificant Questions

The second pitfall we often fall into is asking questions that don't seem to matter. Although answers to the question have significance in understanding the text, the way the question is phrased leave the group wondering So what? or Who cares? For example, if you wish to begin a discussion of Jesus' encounter with the woman at the well by asking, "Why do you observe about the setting?" you'll likely get little or no response. Why? Because there's no indication that answering the question will help group members get at the meaning of the passage.

Principle: Ask questions that convey significance.

When people recognize that a question has import, they are more eager to contribute and often offer more complex answers. To make questions feel significant, rephrase them so they ask respondents to do some meaningful interpretive work. For instance, you might ask about the setting of John 4 like this: "What do you notice about the setting that might change or influence the way you understand this account?"

Group members can easily see how their responses to this question are important to the discussion: To answer, they must tease out the details of the text that will help them interpret it. If you ask about the setting this way, you'll likely get answers such as, "I noticed it was midday, and Jesus was alone with a women, and I think that was taboo in that culture. Jesus broke all the social codes of the time, which shows me how He values women."

Pitfall 3: Hypothetical Questions

We might also be tempted to ask people to imagine themselves in hypothetical situations. For instance, "What would you do if you were the Samaritan woman?" or "How would you feel if you were a disciple?" We pose such questions because we want group members to respond emotionally to the text.

But hypothetical questions are troublesome because they usually ask people to picture themselves in situations they have not and will never experience. Even when group members answer the question, the discussion that follows will likely feel disjointed and unimportant.

Principle: Ask questions that focus on the text rather than hypothetical scenarios.

If you want people to inhabit the text emotionally, an appropriate question would be, "How might the Samaritan woman have felt in Jesus' presence? Why do you think so?" Or "What are some ways she could have responded to Him?" These questions enliven discussion and help participants gather meaning from the text.

Pitfall 4: Leading Questions

Another pitfall to avoid is asking leading questions. A leading question makes assumptions respondents may not agree with. The question "How does Jesus prove He is the Messiah?" is a good example. Based on the way this question is phrased, there can be no discussion about whether Jesus was offering proof that He was the Messiah or whether the Samaritan woman believed Him. Group members will likely feel forced to answer the way they think the discussion leader wants them to. This feeling kills discussion because the group assumes the correct conclusion has already been determined by the leader.

Principle: Ask questions that allow group members to discover meaning for themselves.

Although it is important to have some insights that you want group members to discover over the course of the study, it is equally important to pose questions that help them discover these truths on their own, rather than forcing the issues to arise. Instead of asking, "How does Jesus prove He is the Messiah?" you might ask, "What do you think is Jesus' main objective in talking to the Samaritan woman? What clues do you have?"

As members answer, backing their claims up with evidence from the text, a great discussion will take shape. More than likely, they'll discover, on their own, that Jesus wanted to identify Himself as the Christ. And by asking questions that guide, not force, the group into interesting and useful directions, you might even learn something new!

Pitfall 5: Irrelevant Questions

The next pitfall is asking irrelevant questions. These questions concern information that has nothing to do with the main point of the passage. Unlike insignificant questions, which can be turned into significant ones by adjust the phrasing, irrelevant questions have no bearing on the process of interpreting the text. They dilute the focus of a discussion and make small-group study seem like drudgery. Irrelevant questions may address extraneous context: "What do you think the well looked like?" or "How was Jesus dressed?" or "How old is the Samaritan woman?"

Even though some members may find these questions interesting, they have nothing to do with the main point of the passage.

Principle: Ask questions that relate directly to the main points of the passage.

Steer clear of questions that won't help group members understand the text. If you are unsure whether a question is relevant, you might preface it by asking, for instance, "Do you think it matters how old the Samaritan woman is?" That way, the group can decide whether a detail merits attention.

Pitfall 6: Vague Questions

Asking vague questions can also damage the flow of discussion. Vague questions fail to indicate the specific aspect of a topic you want group members to discuss. For example, asking, "What is the difference between Jesus and the Samaritan woman?" would probably elicit puzzled looks because group members would have no idea what type of differences you have in mind. Are you asking them to compare Jesus' physical features with the woman's? Do you want to discuss their respective attitudes, backgrounds, and educations? The question is too vague to allow for discussion.

Principle: Ask questions that are clear and specific.

Your questions should identify the specific topic you want to discuss. You might rephrase the vague question mentioned earlier into "Do you notice differences in how Jesus and the Samaritan woman talk to each other that taught you something new about Jesus?" With this question, you'll be more likely to get a focused discussion that will elicit some interesting ideas.

Pitfall 7: Impossible Questions

The last pitfall to avoid is asking questions that are impossible to answer. Questions may fall into this category because they request information that is outside the scope of general knowledge. Depending on your group, the question described in the first pitfall -- "Is it significant that Jesus is talking to a Samaritan woman?" -- may be an impossible question. Members might not know anything about the relationship between Jews and Samaritans or the social codes governing male/female interactions during Jesus' day.

Questions may be impossible for other reasons. For example, could your group answer the question, "What did the woman at the well think the Messiah would be like?" Or "Why didn't Jesus perform a miracle here?" or "Why was the woman alone?" We can only speculate about the answers to these questions, and speculation doesn't provide enough certainty to make a valuable discussion.

Principle: Ask questions that can be answered by someone with general -- not specific -- knowledge.

Before posing any question, ask yourself, Will members of my group be able to answer this question using information they already know and the details provided in the text? If that's not the case, you'd need to provide the information your group requires to answer the question. You might begin by asking members what they do know about the topic. Or phrase the question in a way that does not require respondents to have any knowledge outside the text. Instead of asking, "Is it significant that Jesus is talking to a Samaritan woman?" you might ask, "What does the way Jesus treats the Samaritan woman teach us about His character?"

Good discussion questions help group members extract meaning and guide them to truth as they search the Scriptures. As you learn the art of asking questions, leading a small-group Bible study won't seem so challenging, and your group will more skillfully -- and profitably -- uncover the truth God has for them.

Seven Pitfalls to Asking Questions

If you frequently lead small groups or Bible studies, you may want to keep this chart handy to help you develop discussion questions.

PITFALL EXAMPLE REVISION PRINCIPLE
1. Closed Questions "To whom is Jesus talking?" "Is it significant that Jesus is talking to a Samaritan woman? Why or why not?" Ask questions that allow for various answers.
2. Insignificant Questions "What do you observe about the setting?" "What do you notice about the setting that might change or influence the way you understand this account?" Ask questions that convey significance.
3. Hypothetical Questions "What would you do if you were the Samaritan woman?" "What are some ways the Samaritan woman could have responded to Jesus?" Ask questions that focus on the text rather than hypothetical scenarios.
4. Leading Questions "How does Jesus prove He is the Messiah?" "What do you think is Jesus' main objective in talking to the Samaritan woman? What clues do you have?" Ask questions that allow group members to discover meaning for themselves.
5. Irrelevant Questions "How old is the Samaritan woman?" "Do you think it matters how old the Samaritan woman is?" Ask questions that relate directly to the main points of the passage.
6. Vague Questions "What is the difference between Jesus and the Samaritan woman?" "Do you notice differences in how Jesus and the Samaritan woman talk to each other?" Ask questions that are clear and specific.
7. Impossible Questions "Why didn't Jesus perform a miracle?" "Was there anything curious about Jesus' behavior?" Ask questions that can be answered by someone with general -- not specialized -- knowledge.

If They Still Don't Answer

Sometimes even well-phrased questions are met with silence. What do you do then? Here are three tips for jump-starting discussion.

Count to Seven.

After you ask a question, wait seven seconds to allow people to process it. Resist the temptation to answer the question or restate it. Instead, breathe deeply and count the seconds. By the time you get to seven someone will usually answer.

Write it down.

Those in your group may remain silent because they don't like to process thoughts aloud. The "two-minute paper" may help start a discussion. Here's how it works: Ask your question, and invite group members to think through and write down their answers. Provide paper and pens if needed. Repeat the question after two minutes, and let people answer by talking spontaneously or reading from their papers.

Even if many in your group eagerly share answers aloud, thinking and jotting notes for two minutes will produce responses that might have gotten lost in an oral discussion.

Get visual.

If you have a group of quiet, visual processors, a "visual discussion" may encourage participation. The basic idea is to record group responses on a large sheet of paper or a whiteboard and then arrange or mark them in ways that help group members see the flow of the conversation and the connections between ideas. Looking at words on paper triggers different brain connections from hearing them and may spark new ideas.

For example, during a discussion about the differences between the ways Jesus and the Samaritan woman talk to each other, you might divide the paper or whiteboard into two columns. Write "Jesus" at the top of one column and "the Samaritan Woman" at the top of the other. As people call out answers, record their responses in the appropriate columns.

If you're discussing the setting of a passage, you might use a combination of visual-organization techniques. First, ask group members to list details about the setting, and write them on your paper or the board. Then decide which details seem most important to understanding the passage. Circle these. For the story of the woman at the well, you might circle "Samaria," "daytime," "Jesus is alone with the woman," and "well." Next, you might use a brainstorming chart (also called a word web or mind map) to explore the significance of one or more of the circled ideas.

For instance, if your group seems drawn to the image of the well, write "well" in the center of your paper or whiteboard. Ask group members to name things or ideas they associate with a well. Record their responses, spacing them around the paper or board, and draw lines to connect those ideas to the word well. If someone mentions an ideas that seems particularly relevant to the text -- "water" in a discussion of John 4, for instance -- you might refocus discussion on that word, brainstorming ideas related to it and linking them visually with ideas already on your chart. Continue the process as long as time and interest allow. You'll be surprised how much information and insight you'll gain in a few minutes when you map your discussion in this way.

Heather Holleman is on staff with Campus Crusade for Christ at the University of Michigan, where she works with and asks questions of graduate and professional students. This article was printed in Discipleship Journal. It is reprinted here with permission.

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