Friday, June 26, 2009

Before You Answer a Trick Question

Last Sunday the "lectionary", or traditional Bible readings, of many Christian churches included Matthew 21:28-33, Jesus' parable of the father and his two sons. The father asks each of them individually to do some vineyard work; the first refuses but later thought better of it and did the work; the second agreed but then did nothing. Jesus' question to his audience, mostly of learned scholars at the Temple and Pharisees was, which did his father's will?

Jesus was asked trick questions many times in His ministry, that is, the questioner's motives were not the answer to the question as much as the opportunity for criticism, derision or culpatory evidence. In this case however, it was Jesus who asked the trick question. The real hero of this story was neither son, but the father, whose patience kept him silent when his first son directly defied him, but enabled that son to eventually come through. This was evidently lost upon His audience, preoccupied as they were about maintaining their own position to be receptive to the moral heroism of the present but silent father in Jesus' story. Eventually, after hearing some more of Jesus' parables, they came to realize that He was speaking of the lowliness of their moral position in maintaining their political position. He did this in an indirect, nonconfrontational way, using trick questions among other things.

All of us have had to one degree or another our share of trick questions asked of us - designed more to manipulate or entrap us than to get information. And all too many of us have asked questions with similar motives - hidden agendas. The value of this Bible story, like so many others, is in enabling us to find parts of ourselves in it. A part of us is that first son, who grumbles if not refuses to do what is asked of him, but eventually comes through. And another part is the second son who promises, but then does not deliver. And another part is the father, who if nothing else is given opportunity to weather a rebuff and so enable another to change his mind in a positive direction.

It is all too tempting for us to deny that we would ask trick questions; that is, ask with dishonest motives or with hidden agendas. Yet the place within ourselves that we come from in so doing is as much a part of ourselves as is our arms and hands and fingers. If we really 'fess up' and ask what the real motives and values of that part is, likely we find that it is self-defense - just as it was for the chief priests and scribes that Jesus was questioning. And, those of us most in denial of that part of ourselves will be most likely to use it - and hate others that use it, just as was Jesus' audience "who would have liked to arrest him" (Matthew 21:46).

Power questions the antidote

In coaching we ask power questions: generally beginning with 'what', 'where', or 'how', sometimes 'when' but generally not 'why'. They are questions with no 'right' or 'wrong' answer; because of that they are nonjudgmental; they invite us to explore within ourselves without fear. They are not multiple-choice and certainly not yes-or-no. Trick questions narrow the horizons, if they do not manipulate and deceive as well; power questions broaden them.

We are not likely to have the great skill Jesus had in asking trick questions to morally illuminate His recalcitrant audience. But power questions can be used by any of us in our personal relationships. One option to having to answer an obviously manipulative 'trick' question is to protest; and ask that the corresponding power question be asked. As an example, if you were asked "Don't you believe the Bible to be the Word of God?", the corresponding power question would be "What do you believe the Bible to be?"

Now might be the time to consider going into coaching; not only to experience the self-illumination and self-discovery of answering true power questions, but to learn how better to ask them.

Dave Smart is the lead coach at Transcendence Coaching and Mentoring. He trained at The Coaches Training Institute where he learned Co-actuve Coaching, where power questions begin with asking the client what his agenda is. If you feel your horizons narrowed by those about you by their questions, coaching is for you. Check out TCM's website:

No comments: