Ask the 2nd Question

Why do we ask questions?

A number of reasons. We ask questions because we are seeking information – we don’t know an answer, and we think that the person we are asking does, so we ask. We also ask questions as a means of intimacy – we aren’t particularly interested in information, we are interested in a person, and so we ask them questions about themselves. We also ask questions as a means of understanding. We know the information, but we don’t understand someone’s perspective or thought process or feelings, so we are seeking further clarity.

That’s why we ask questions – but what question do we ask?

This is where creativity comes into play, because there is an art to asking a good question. A good question is one that requires thought, but not too much thought; one that is able to be answered, but also requires some level of thoughtfulness; and a really good question has a measure of knowledge associated with it. For example, the question of “How are you?” is very different than the question, “How are you after Tuesday?” The second one indicates a level of knowledge about what happened on Tuesday, and also a level of knowledge that whatever happened was significant enough to cause some kind of reaction.

So yes, there is an art to asking good questions whether they are questions to your spouse, your kids, your friends, or even a stranger you are just getting to know.

And while there is an art to asking good questions, there is power in asking the second questions. What is the second question?

It’s just that – it’s the follow up question you ask after you’ve already asked one. It’s the quest for further elaboration; further disclosure; further intimacy. And the second question is the one in which you demonstrate that you actually care about the answer to the first question, and further, that you were actually listening to the answer given. Consider the following scenario by way of example:

Let’s say that someone you know has recently had a doctor’s appointment in which they might or might not have received some life-changing news about their health. So you ask them:

“What did the doctor say?”

“It’s not good,” comes the response. “Turns out it’s malignant. I start treatment in a week.”

Here is where you have a choice to make. On the one hand, you got what you came for. You have the information you sought. And you could say something like this in response:

“I’m sorry to hear that. I want you to know I’m praying for you.”

Now that is certainly a worthwhile response. Your friend needs, and will appreciate, your prayers. But what if instead, you pressed further in and asked the second question:

“My goodness. So how do you feel about that?”

Simple question, but that simple, second question is also an invitation. It’s an invitation to move closer together. It’s an invitation to a greater level of investment and compassion. There is great power in asking it.

Here’s another example, one that every parent is familiar with:

“Hey, buddy – how was school today?”

“Pretty good.”

And here again you have a choice. On the one hand, you can stop at the first question. But if you knew there was a test that day or that there was some kind of angst in the friend group or some other anxiety, then you have the chance to ask another one. A deeper one. A more probing one. And again, this is where the true power lies.

So why don’t we ask the second question more often? Perhaps it’s because we intuitively know that the first question costs us very little. But the second question raises the ante. It puts more of our emotion, or time, or resources on the table. And that’s why asking the second question takes a measure of courage and sacrifice on our part.

But it’s worth it. The people in our lives are worth it. The God, whose compassions never fail and who we represent, is worth it. So let’s ask one more question. Let’s embrace the cost and go one step further.

(I’m grateful for Dr. Charles Smith from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary who proposed this idea in a doctoral seminar I participated in last week.)

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