Lesson 4: Ask First

Series: Speaking the Truth in Love

by D. Marion Clark May 1, 2006

Lesson 4                      Ask First

Ask first. Ask before correcting, accusing, or advising. This simple step has saved me from blowing up problems into crises, and more often than not leads directly to resolutions.

I am told that someone has acted offensively. Perhaps he yelled at others while setting up for an event or disregarded some rules. My typical routine is to courteously ask the supposed offender about the event itself, sometimes not even bringing up the complaint until after he has told his story.

What does this procedure of asking questions accomplish? For one thing, it avoids creating more conflict. Let's say I am told that Sunday School teacher Jerry kicked student Tom out of his class. The next day I call up Jerry and admonish him for being so rude. What I've done is immediately put the two of us in a position of conflict. Now Jerry must deal with my rebuke, which he is likely not to do well. Even if he keeps quiet while taking my sharp words, he will harbor resentment and distrust inside for me, as well as for Tom. I have now heightened the stakes of the original conflict. But if I begin our conversation by asking Jerry to tell me what happened, I then move into the position of being a counselor who helps him resolve the issue, and he is more willing to listen to my hear what I have to say.

Why so? By asking questions first, I am more likely to remove the defensive walls he normally will have around himself. Jerry is expecting a call and has prepared to refute Tom's charges. If I ask Jerry to simply tell the story of what happened, he relaxes; if I convey that I really do want to know the whole story and not merely rebuke him, then he relaxes even more so that we end up having a calm discussion.

Good questions enable the accused to become reasonable, which is the goal of the process. I am not asking questions as a set up in which I then go on the attack. I am asking questions to help us both understand what the issues really are and then to help Jerry address his own behavior appropriately.

Good questions also keep me from making false judgments. I am as likely as not to find that the initial report was false or misleading in some way. I may learn that, yes, Jerry did kick Tom out of his class, but only after Tom began lashing out at another class member. And Jerry was going to call me anyhow to discuss the situation. If I had confronted Jerry first, then he would be wary of turning to me in the future for help.

Good questions enhance problem solving. Without accurate, substantiated information, I am not in position to address the problem as needed. Perhaps Jerry is in the wrong. If I gently probe well with my questions, I may learn the deeper cause for Jerry's action. Perhaps Jerry had a marital dispute before coming to church and had overreacted to Tom because of problems at home. This does not excuse Jerry's behavior, but it does allow for me to get to the root of the matter and provide real help for Jerry (and his wife), as well as lead to reconciliation with Tom. I help Jerry think through how to relate well in class even while he is under stress.

Good questions win respect and trust. Jerry will not respect me for my quickness in jumping to conclusions. He will respect me for wanting to ascertain the facts before forming opinions. As a result, if I must side with Tom, Jerry nevertheless will accept my decision even if he disagrees with it. What people want is to know that they have been heard, and that whoever is rendering the decision demonstrates that he is desiring to be fair and to what is best all around. Most people will accept mistakes; what they won't accept is indifference to their case or prejudice against it.

Ask questions first. Ask questions of the one making the accusation. "Is that right? Jerry threw you out of class for no reason? Tell me what led up to that moment." Ask questions that help the accuser's ability to reason. "Jerry threw you out of the class? Jerry is not know for acting like that. Had there been any interaction in class that might have led to his outburst?" Ask questions to help the accuser think of what he needs to do. "Did you talk to Jerry afterwards? Do you think you could have waited until after class to ask your question? Have you thought about getting together with him for coffee and working things out?"

By asking Tom if he has thought about taking certain actions, I allow him to be the decision-maker, and, again, take away his need to defend himself. If I tell Tom what he should have done, ("You should have been more respectful; you should have apologized.") he is more likely to defend why he should not take those actions. My goal is not to manipulate Tom to do what I want, but to remove his natural instinct for defending himself and thus allow him to thoughtfully examine himself and consider objectively the situation.

I operate from the perspective that our instinct for self-preservation causes us to throw up mental and emotional defenses when we feel threatened. These defenses not only block off outside "attackers," but they interfere with our thinking and with examining ourselves. How do I get through these defenses? By removing as much as possible the perception of me as a threat. I do that by asking questions, instead of confronting; by being courteous rather than intimidating; by demonstrating a willingness to listen; and by conveying that my goal is to help, not to harm.

Asking questions is the most effective tool for listening well. Good questions coupled with sensitive listening will give you clues to what's going on inside a person that accounts for his behavior, even when he doesn't know it. Let's say you observe irritable behavior in one of your ministry team members that is not typical. Instead of taking him aside and admonishing for his rudeness, you simply ask him how things are going. Chances are something has happened in his life unrelated to the ministry that has him upset. When you learn what it is, you express sympathy and have prayer with him. Again, his likely response is to relax and change his behavior. He may even bring up his bad behavior and ask forgiveness without you even bringing it up. As Christians, we typically know when our behavior is wrong. When stress is removed, when we are allowed to admit our sin without fearing admonition, then we often will admonish ourselves. It is not usual for you to move from being the admonisher to being the encourager.

Be sure to ask specific questions. If SS teacher Jerry had said to me that he was having "one of those days," I would ask him to explain just what was happening that day. When someone makes a comment and adds, "You know what I mean," even if I think I do, I will still ask him to explain. I do that so that I am clear on what he truly means, but also to help him think it through as well. Phrases like the two just mentioned are often thrown out because the person is fuzzy about what he means. He needs to articulate clearly his thoughts so that he understands what is going on in his head. And it is when he is pushed to articulate clearly that he gets clear on insight into his behavior.

It is very important not to interrupt. You want to give signals that you are listening, as noted in the previous message, but you don't want to detour his thoughts. Don't ask irrelevant questions or make statements that go in a tangent. Let's go back to Jerry. He relates that he and his wife had gone out to dinner the night before. Don't interrupt him by asking what restaurant they went to, and this is not the time to mention that you too had gone to a restaurant and had a good meal. Such a question and comment throws off his thinking process, as well as your own.

Finally, good questions can effectively disarm someone who challenges your authority or right to intervene, or who is simply being hard to reason with. When asked, "Why are you getting involved," ask back, "Why wouldn't I?" Make them do the explaining. This is especially the case if you are the leader of a ministry. For example, you tell your team that you want everyone present an hour before your ministry event. Tom comes a half hour early. When you ask why he was late, he replies that he didn't see a reason for being an hour early. It is not for you to explain why he should have come earlier. You ask him to explain why he did not have to follow through on the conditions you had given. Make him do the explaining, not to push him in a corner, but to help him think through the real issue, in this case disrespecting authority and not being a team player.

Good questions are not diversion tactics, nor are they weapons to intimidate. Good questions are tools for the questioner and for the responder to get through defenses and fuzzy thinking to arriving at real solutions.

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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By D. Marion Clark. ©2018 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org