Persuasion by Inquiry

In Arguing with Friends I suggest that one of the most powerful tools for discussion is the use of questions. In this blog entry I want to highlight just one of the many reasons why questions are so powerful, and I want to do so by sharing a couple of videos and stories that illustrate this principle in action.

Among other benefits, questions can be a powerful and non-offensive way to help somebody see the error in their own beliefs. As I describe in Arguing with Friends, if you simply tell your friend that they are wrong, that inspires them to get defensive. If, on the other hand, you ask them the right question, that can inspire them to honestly assess their own perspective. Questions that probe another person’s false beliefs do not inspire defensiveness to the same extent that declarations like, “you are wrong” typically do.

Let’s see this in action. This first video is really brief, but I think it is an excellent illustration of the principle.

Short and to the point. And he makes his point well, doesn’t he? His question is a perfectly legitimate question given the previous claims, and it shows that those claims may need to be reconsidered. It accomplishes all of that in a non-offensive, Socratic, manner.

This next video is a clip taken from one of my favorite comedies, My Cousin Vinny.[1] The scene linked to below (you can fast foward to 08:50) shows three different ways that one could ask questions. The first person does not want to poke holes in the testimony of the witness (the prosecuting lawyer) and so asks very “soft ball” questions. The second person would like to poke holes, but is unable to do so (the defense lawyer for one of the defendants). The third person, Vinny, would like to poke holes in the witness’s testimony and is obviously much more skilled at doing so. He is the defense lawyer for the other yout … er … defendant. Enjoy.

You’ll notice how Vinny (Joe Pesci) completely undermines the witness’s testimony without making any statements or telling him that he is wrong. He just asks questions! Now, admittedly, if you are having conversations with a friend of your’s about life’s biggest issues it would not be a good idea to ask questions with the antagonistic and condescending tone that Vinny uses. This is a dramatic moment in a comedy movie; take the general method of inquiry from it, not the specific implementation, ok?

To get really good at it you need practice; lots of practice. Why? The fine art of asking questions is a skill that requires a lot of honing for two reasons. First you need to know which topics are worth asking questions about (be strategic), and second you need to learn what kind of questions will prove most effective (be tactical). In Arguing with Friends I suggest reading Greg Koukl’s book, Tactics, and I recommend it again here. Koukl describes what he calls the “Columbo Tactic” of asking questions. I won’t steal his thunder; just get the book. With his book (and mine!) and some real-life practice, you can develop the fine art of using questions as a means to respectfully drawing a person’s attention to their own inconsistencies. This is both far more loving, and far more likely to be taken seriously, than just telling them. Besides, by asking them questions you give them the opportunity to defend themselves and it may just happen that they are right! (More on the scary prospect of open-minded evangelism here)

Real life examples

We’ve seen some videos, let’s consider some more examples to show this technique in use with real people discussing real issues. Ravi Zacharias tells the story of a lunch meeting with a professor of Eastern philosophy. The professor takes up virtually the entire lunch time explaining how Western philosophy runs on the idea that Truth is an “either / or” kind of deal, whereas Eastern philosophy runs on the idea that Truth is a “both / and” kind of deal. For illustration purposes, “either / or” logic would insist that either God exists or he does not; “both / and” logic would accept that God both exists and does not exist. This logic is applied to all of life, though; not just the question of God’s existence. All of reality, he proposed, is “both/and” and it is a mistake to try and understand reality from an “either/or” perspective. The professor insisted that Ravi’s reason for rejecting Eastern philosophy is because Ravi has applied “either / or” reasoning to a worldview that works from the “both / and” line of reasoning. If Ravi were to study Eastern philosophy properly (in other words from the “both / and” perspective) then he would understand it and not reject it.

Just as the professor was about to finally deliver the first piece of food (which had cooled down by now) past his teeth, Ravi asked him a single question, “Are you telling me that I either study Eastern philosophy from the both / and perspective or I do not study it at all?”

Silence. The professor slowly lowered his fork.

“The either / or does seem to emerge, doesn’t it?” the professor quietly acknowledged.

“Indeed,” confirmed Ravi, “Even in India we look both ways before crossing the street; it is either the bus or me, not both!”

A lunch-time full of philosophical elaborations can be undermined with a single, well-worded, question. And the question did not force the professor into a defensive corner, but allowed him to explore the issue and answer as he saw fit. The answer, unfortunately, was not friendly to his currently held worldview but that was for him to work out; Ravi simply asked the question.

No less a teacher than Jesus himself utilized questions as a means of drawing people toward the truth, or in this case drawing attention to their own inconsistency.

And when he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.

(Mat 21:23-27 ESV)

One question – and a perfectly legitimate one at that – yet it caused the leaders of the day to stop dead in their tracks and reconsider their approach to Jesus. Questions can be so powerful in opening up the truth for people, and a major part of their power resides in their non-aggressive nature. As long as the questions are sincere and legitimate they can be far more effective than the most lengthy monologue. This is but one of the advantages of questions that I describe in Arguing with Friends; there are other advantages too. Never forget to use this tool and use it often.

[1] – If you haven’t seen My Cousin Vinny before, just be warned there is certainly a fair bit of vulgarity and a few scenes with not-child-friendly themes.


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