I have loved questions for as long as I can remember. I was that annoying kid who asked questions during every movie I ever watched, leaving my parents to say over and over, “We are watching the same movie you are, Hope.” Now my love of questions has turned into a career as a therapist and a question writer for our Bible study company. But nowhere have I seen the power of questions more on display than when asked between friends where one is struggling. When we ask suffering people questions, it makes them feel seen. It makes them feel like they’re not alone and tells them we’re willing to step into it with them, even if we don’t know what’s helpful in the moment. We make whatever they’re going through, big or small, important to us.
When I’ve brought this up with people they often say, “Well, that’s easy for you to say. You’re a therapist,” or “I don’t even know what to ask,” or “I don’t want to pry or get too personal.” You don’t need a degree in counseling or an extra special ability to put things into words. You just need a desire to understand what someone you love is going through and how you can be present in that with them.
How Do We Do It?
I once counted how many times Jesus asked a question as I studied a gospel. I was shocked. He asked questions all over the place to the Pharisees, his disciples, and to people coming to him for healing. It was one of the primary tools he used to help people see their own hearts, even though he already knew. But we are not Jesus, and while we mimic him in this way, we do it for different purposes: we do it to help people feel seen and loved and to safeguard against our own hearts. Often, we think we know why someone is suffering or what they need to hear to feel better because we have been through something similar or know someone who has. We launch into advice and skip asking questions. We are so eager to live out this proverb to our suffering friend: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Proverbs 25:11). We think that some wise thought will calm their pain. But how can we do that when we don’t know if the word we are giving them is actually apt or suitable for the circumstances? Then we become a fool who, “takes no pleasure in understanding, but in expressing his opinion” (Proverbs 18:2). That is not helpful to our suffering friend. This is where the powerful tool of questions comes into play.
In these situations, I use what I call the 80/20 rule—80 percent asking questions and 20 percent responding. I usually try to follow this rule when I know I am going to be spending time with someone who is going through hard stuff. I want to put most of the attention during our time on them. I ask as many questions as I can think of. I might pause from question asking and throw in, “This sounds so hard; I’m sorry.” But I mostly ask questions and get as much insight as I can into what is going on. This gives my friend the space to process their situation, leading to them feeling cared for and sometimes, inspiring a new level of insight. After I’ve learned all I can about their circumstance, I will spend the remaining time giving feedback that I think might be helpful. I always couch this with, “Hey here are some thoughts I had while you were talking. Pray and sift through and only keep what is helpful; these are just ideas.”
When asking questions, it’s important to recognize the difference between an open-ended question and a closed-ended question: Questions that seem the most helpful when applying the 80/20 rule are open-ended. An open-ended question in this situation might be, “Tell me how things have been hard lately,” versus a close-ended question, “Things have been hard lately, haven’t they?” One leads to a more detailed account of what is going on while the other one just leads to a yes or no response, without much additional information.
How Deep Do We Go?
So how deep do you get with these questions? Think of it like a swimming pool. There’s the deep end, the middle, and the shallow end. You can guide your questions accordingly. You might start by asking questions that are in the shallow end, getting used to the water. Questions like, “How has your day been?” or “Anything specific I can help you with this week?” Moving to the middle of the pool, imagine you are waist deep but haven’t gotten your hair wet. These questions might sound like, “So in that moment when that hard thing happened, how did you feel about it?” Then, think about the deep end questions. These might sound like, “How has this been between you and God?” or “Where are you struggling the most to function during this time?” Be curious about what’s going on with your friend by asking questions that have varying depths. Your questions can be one of the greatest gifts to a suffering friend.
What should we be mindful of?
As you pursue your suffering friend with questions, there are a few things to be mindful of. Are there wrong or hurtful questions? There can be. If you ask a question and you immediately know that it’s been hurtful to your friend, apologize. Tell them you weren’t sure how to word that. Your friend is in a hard spot. Things might not land well, or they may feel hurtful in the moment. If so, own it and keep trying.
Keep your questions other-centered. These are more about being curious and compassionate and less about judging. This helps you from falling into the trap of trying to control them. Your questions need to be less about you leading them to what you think is the right answer and more about what they need to understand about their situation.
As you ask questions, think to yourself, “Is this question helpful for her or is it just stuff I want to know?” Are you just asking because her situation makes you anxious and you are trying to prevent that in your life? Are you asking just because you want the juicy details? If so, repent to the Spirit and go a different direction. In addition, there may be times when a friend responds to your questions with, “I don’t want to talk about it.” That’s okay. She is letting you know how to love her in the moment.
Questions are such a powerful way to love our sisters when they are suffering. I know it can feel scary to try this new skill; it can feel awkward or unfamiliar. Remember, you always have the Spirit with you. Lean into him and ask him for help, insight, and guidance. He will show up and guide your question-filled conversations for his Glory and for your friend’s good.
About the Author:
Hope lives in San Antonio with her husband and three teenagers. She spends her days working as a therapist at Kaleo Counseling. She partners with Christina Gordon in writing accessible Bible studies for At His Feet Studies. She loves being outside, making people laugh, and playing with her dogs. You can find her at athisfeetstudies.com or on instagram at athisfeetstudies.