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Four Key Types of Questions

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

In my last blog, we discussed how Jesus, like other ancient rabbis, used questions to help his disciples wrap their heads around what He was teaching about the Kingdom of God. He would ask a question, then after someone responded, He would ask further questions. We see this in Matthew 16 with Peter making the Great Confession that Jesus was the Christ:


Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ (Matthew 16:13-20 ESV).


Jesus helped His disciples in a process known as “critical reflection,” where an issue is considered in depth. Now, the term “critical” does not mean “being critical” of someone or something, as in “criticizing.” Instead, it is a process by which adults (and older children) learn through closely evaluating and analyzing an issue from multiple facets and different perspectives. It is a way of determining the meaning of something. In our example, Jesus shifts the context and perspective of the question from a general observation of the public at large (who do people say I am?) to a specific reflection within His disciples (who do you say that I am?), helping them come to their own conclusion reflected in Peter’s words: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” It is on this realization that He would build His Church.


Jesus led His disciples into their realization through His use of questions. In fact, we see His first involvement with questions in the encounter He has in the temple as a boy, found in Luke 2:47 – “And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” The “answers” here, Gk. apokrisis, is literally a “reply” to a question within the context of a dialogue. Jesus is in a discussion, and the teachers in the temple ask Him questions as their means of instruction. They marvel at the level of understanding exemplified in His replies. The word sysnesis here in Greek, where we get our English term synthesis means the combination of parts to form a whole. Such “understanding” comes from deductive reasoning through a dialectic discussion, which is where two or more people are asking questions of each other about the meaning of something. It is speaking with, not speaking at (very different from our modern sermons, indeed). The understanding comes as a result of this process of synthetic thinking – the combination of ideas and observations into a complex whole, a sum which is a more significant, higher truth than its parts. Critical reflection, with synthetic thinking at its core, is the path to wisdom and transcends mere knowledge. Wisdom tells you what to do based on what something means. Peter worships Christ based on coming to the realization of who he is. This goes far beyond simple mental assent to the fact that Jesus was the Messiah; it led him to greater obedience and followership.


Another aspect of the critical reflection/synthetic thinking process is something called “suspension.” Often credited to Peter Senge, the idea is to “suspend” the thought or concept being considered, placing it metaphorically in front of you so as to consider all the possibilities of the issue from all angles, a 360-degree perspective. It means to take a “hands-off” approach, surrendering currently held positions on the thing under consideration in order to possibly come to greater understanding. In our example, Jesus’s questions take His disciple to this place of suspension, allowing and facilitating the work of the Holy Spirit to bring them to a higher truth of Jesus being the Christ.


Good questions are essential in a critical reflection/synthetic thinking dialogue. Allow me now to offer four kinds of questions that facilitate the desired outcome of greater learning. The four types are Observational, Affective, Cognitive, and Synthetic, and can be aligned in a process to help everybody learn:


Observational questions ask, “What do you see?”

These questions broach the subject for discussion or are in response to a question already raised by someone. Basically, it helps both the learner/disciple and the mentor/teacher to frame the thought for further analysis. Most often, follow-up questions are needed in this part of the dialogue for clarifying what the situation really is or to more adequately delimit the topic of discussion for effective learning.


Affective questions ask, “What does what you see make you feel?”

Scientists used to believe that external stimuli from the senses and the thoughts that followed were first processed in the main brain cortex and then passed to the amygdala, an almond-shaped part of the brain which processes straightforward emotions. However, the opposite is true – we feel first, then think logically as a somewhat secondary function. To that end, processing emotion as a part of critical reflection is a key part of being prepared to reflect logically. This does not denigrate emotion but allows it to be integrated with logic and not become an impediment to true learning. Again, follow-up questions in this domain will help the learner understand and differentiate their emotions, allowing reason to come into play. The term “I’m just feeling it” is an excellent example of emotion stopping a reflective process, as if this is truly meant as said, it indicates that the sum of reflection ended at emotional reflection alone. What the emotion is defines the person's complete understanding of the issue and can lead to illogical actions. As I always say, “Feelings are real, but are not necessarily true.”


Cognitive questions ask, “What do you think about what you see?”

Now that emotion is properly clarified, proper logical consideration can be engaged beyond the emotional response. This allows facts to be considered, new positions to be evaluated without the overt influence of one’s emotions. This is where all the “if/then” of logical consideration can come into play.


Synthetic questions ask, “What does it mean?”

The final form of questions integrate the observation, emotion, and logical thought of the person, calling upon them to assign meaning or definition to what is the issue at the heart of the dialog. Again, in our example, Jesus asking “who do you say that I am?” results in Peter's realization of who Christ truly is. Arriving at a solid meaning allows for truth to be integrated into our lives. Without it, there is no way to claim a truth as our own, and accordingly, it does not become part of who we are or how we live. I believe this disconnection is why many Christians never effectively live the Jesus way, as they have never really wrestled with what the Scripture teaches us about Him and the Kingdom way of life. As such, it remains disintegrated from them, and from within them, leading to less fulfillment of His purposes in and through them.


Now, many of these questions can be combined in a way that presents a less linear construct. Still, the process of critical reflection is key to people leading in the way of the Master, Jesus. Question asking within the context of a discipleship dialogue is a key element in the methodology of Jesus.


Want to know more about how Jesus did it? Take a look at pages 68-77 in The Way of the Master: The Leader Development Methodology of Jesus now available of Amazon in Kindle format and can be accessed on a table, a smart phone or your computer via the Kindle e-reader app.


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John Kimball
John Kimball
24. 3. 2021

I love this -- it's so helpful. I remember when you first introduced this to us a few years back. It has stuck with me. It's great to not only better understand the rabbinical way of Jesus, but how to apply these kinds of questions during our own investment in others.

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