Stories from a Recovering Advice Giver

Guest Post by Dennis Hesselbarth

Hi, I’m Dennis and I’m a recovering advice giver. Learning to ask questions and then “shut up and listen!” has transformed my ability to empower others. I’m repeatedly surprised at how open others will be about themselves when I ask questions. Follow up questions help people to discover for themselves ways to develop and move forward. And almost inevitably, we draw closer together relationally.

I recently had two occasions to ask questions that were especially meaningful.

Over the Holidays

One evening over the holidays with our youngest daughter’s family I pulled out Bob Tiede’s 12 questions for kids and started asking questions.

Question One:  What do you feel has been one of your greatest accomplishments in the last year?

Our Son in law, a Navy Chief Petty Officer, talked about growing as a team leader. He focuses on coaching and empowering his team to lead rather than doing things himself, resulting in his team’s superior performance evaluations. My daughter talked about being able to serve the teachers and staff in her administrative role in a school district.

Then they asked their two young teen children the same question.

Our granddaughter struggled to think of anything significant she had accomplished. She tends to compare herself with others and discount herself. The rest of the family, even her “bratty little brother” responded by reciting one thing after another that she had done (of course, grandpa had to boast a bit as well!). I watched in awe as the family piled on encouragement. That one little question turned into a tender time of family encouragement.

Then I asked question two: What has been one of your greatest struggles this past year?

Our daughter quietly opened up about her struggles with anxiety, about how both medication and counseling is helping, yet how difficult it has been at times. I watched, again, as the family listened and spoke words of support. Again, that one question brought the family together in a very tender way.

Then I asked question three: Has anything happened in your life in the last year that I don’t know about, but that you think I should know about? That time turned into a time of howling laughter as we all shared embarrassing moments.

The stage was set for more conversation. Later that evening, when I was alone with my daughter, I asked about her anxiety and what it was like growing up in our family. I didn’t know back then how to ask or talk about feelings, and I knew I had not always been helpful. As we talked, I was able to acknowledge her hurts, apologize for things and affirm my love for her.

Three questions, simply asked, lead to a moving family time of encouragement and bonding that evening.

Ranching in the Flint Hills of Kansas

I was recently asked to speak at a rural “ranch” church in the Flint Hills of Kansas, a wide expanse of native prairie grasses. These ranchers tend to keep their struggles to themselves, I’ve been told. I’m a city kid, so I wondered what if anything I had to offer. I barely know one end of a cow from the other!

So why not ask them questions? We first looked together at a passage about listening which suggests that an antidote for anger is listening:

James 1:19   My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.

Then I had the congregation divide up in twos and take turns listening to each other answer a question: (They were to pick one of these three to answer). The rule: the one listening was not to say a word, just listen. 

  1. What has stuck out to you this morning? Why?
  2. What’s something that’s been encouraging to you lately?
  3. What’s something about yourself you’d like me to know?

Those stoic ranchers soon were chattering away. Smiles. Some tears. Hands on shoulders. When it was time to wrap up, I had the hardest time getting them to stop talking.

Their assignment was to find someone that next week, ask a question, and then listen.

Walking out the door, one grizzled old rancher pulled me aside and said, “Thanks. I like it when a preacher gets practical.”

Asking questions. Even a city kid has something to offer. A question works everywhere.

Note from Bob:  I have been grateful for Dennis’s friendship for 50 years!  From 1972-1974 I was the Campus Director for Cru at Colorado School of Mines where Dennis was one of our Student Leaders!  We have remained connected ever since!

Dennis Hesselbarth


Dennis Hesselbarth has lived and pastored his adult life in inner city and multicultural urban settings. His passion is to develop and empower others, especially those broken, overlooked, and discounted. He currently serves as a marketplace chaplain among employees of a company that manufactures inside a maximum security prison.


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