What Is Their Story?

What Is Their Story?


Includes 90 “Get-to-Know-Others” Questions!

Many of us waste golden opportunities to deepen relationships during family, church and business conversations.

How? We ask generic questions of one another that produce superficial information:

  • “Where are you from?”
  • “What kind of work do you do?”
  • “How long have you been in town?”
  • “Where are you going to school?”

Polite, respectful questions like these are appropriate for the initial part of a conversation, but they do not enable us to get to know one another at an authentic, personal level.

If you want to really know people and build genuine relationships, develop the skill of asking questions that draw out other people’s stories and dreams.

Stories and dreams include facts, but more importantly, they are enriched with emotion. They enable us to truly understand and relate to others because they communicate at a heart level, at the level of feelings, fears, frustrations, joys, hopes and aspirations.

A Case on Point

This point is powerfully illustrated in the movie Amistad. It is based on the true story of a group of enslaved Africans who took over their ship in 1839 on the way to America and fought for their freedom in federal court. In a pivotal movie scene, one of their abolitionist allies, Theodore Joadson (played by Morgan Freeman), visits John Quincy Adams (played by Anthony Hopkins), to enlist his assistance. (If video screen does not appear below, click here.)

During their brief conversation, Adams describes the power of story with these words:

“When I was an attorney a long time ago, I realized after much trial and error, that in a courtroom, whoever tells the best story wins.”

Joadson doesn’t grasp the point, so Adams presses him with the question, “What is their story?” When Joadson answers, “They’re from Africa,” Adams gently rebukes him with these words:

“You have proven you know what they are. They’re Africans. Congratulations. What you don’t known, and as far as I can tell haven’t bothered in the least to discover, is who they are.”

As the movie goes on to show, “Who they are,” is not defined in terms of where they were born, how old they are, or what they did for a living, but rather in terms of their struggles and suffering, their hopes and their dreams, all of which are powerfully summarized in the climatic plea, “Give us free!” (If video screen does not appear below, click here.)

The Bible Is a Story Filled with Stories

Do you want to connect with people in the days ahead? Really connect? Do you want to build relationships? Real relationships?

Then go beyond the superficial, generic questions and answers we all tend to use, and think of ways to connect with others at the level of story … just as God does throughout Scripture (e.g., Gen. 37-50; 1 Samuel 17; 2 Samuel 11-12).

Follow Jesus’ example and relate to people through both heart and mind, at the level of their fears and joys, their challenges and victories, their values and their dreams (see Luke 10:25-36; Luke 15:11-32; Luke 16:19-31; John 4:1-26).

Learning New Questions

This is a skill anyone can learn. Start a conversation with the typical polite questions. But as people relax, move on to questions that unpack stories and dreams.

With couples or close friends

  • “When you first met, what character qualities drew you toward each other?”
  • “Now that you’ve known each other for a while, what quality do you value most in the other person?”
  • “What are some ways that God has blessed you deeply in the past year?”
  • “What do you enjoy most about your work/family/school/life? Why?
  • “What is the greatest challenge you faced in the past year?”
  • “What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned in the past year?”
  • “What keeps you awake at night?”

With young children

  • “What do you like most about your mom and dad?”
  • “If school was canceled for a month and you could go and do anything you wanted, what would you do?”
  • “What fictional place would you most like to visit?”
  • “What’s the funniest thing your brother or sister (or pet) did in the past year?”

With college students

  • “What was the most surprising or scary moment last semester?”
  • “If you had a time machine and could go back to your senior year in high school, what advice would you give yourself?”
  • “What dreams or passions led you to choose your major?”

To draw out dreams that may have been abandoned long ago

  • “What would you do tomorrow if you knew you could not fail?”

The possibilities are endless, but the goal is the same. Go for the story. Go for the dreams. Learn who people really are. Connect with and understand others at this level, and you’ll be well on your way to building real relationship.

>> Click here for 75 additional questions! <<

Developing Relational Wisdom

For more information on how you can improve your skills for understanding others, reducing conflict, and building enduring and authentic relationships, please visit our web site. You will find a list of scheduled speaking events and information on how you could host a Developing Relational Wisdom Seminar in your church, ministry, or business.

~ Ken Sande

Reflection Questions:

  • Think of a person who is especially gifted at asking questions that encourage others to share the significant beliefs, events, values, goals and dreams of their lives. What is it about that person that makes other comfortable sharing their stories and dreams?
  • Which of the questions list above or on the linked supplement would you feel most comfortable asking of others? Being asked of yourself?
  • Describe a conversation that went much deeper than normal. What was it that caused that to happen?
  • What is the next setting where you would like to use these types of questions?

Permission to distribute: Please feel free to download, print, or electronically share this message in its entirety for non-commercial purposes with as many people as you like.

© 2018 Ken Sande

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6 Responses to "What Is Their Story?"
  1. I had to read this book for an assignment I don’t know if I would’ve pikecd it otherwise, thinking I’m fine with how I resolve all my conflict, thank you very much. Ken really challenged me to proactively resolve conflict to show the power and love of Christ. It really is an amazing witness to fellow Christians and non-Christians to have a Christian proactively forgive and desire a peaceful result in a conflict.

  2. I would like to follow Jesus in the way that He related to people. He was focused on sharing the love of God, purposeful in building truth-centered relationships, and continuously created moments of eternal value.
    Not only would it be fulfilling to live in this kind of intentionality, but so enriching to know that you could share relational moments that really had lasting significance—just by expecting the wonder in us all.

    Marcia Gladwish, an artist missionary at The Creative Call, travels the world to teach people how to tell their stories of abuse and sorrow using a story rope or collaged painted paper. The art portrays the significance that words can’t always express. Together they also weave the story of God’s love within their timeline. Lives have been changed forever because someone was unafraid to be authentic and also bring Jesus into the center of their story. They bonded because of the shared connections; they learned to trust at the deepest levels; they became unified in fellowship and hope.

    Once a person has value to us, it isn’t hard to be compassionate in the time we take (like the Good Samaritan) or the love we share (like the prodigal son’s papa) or the urgency we feel (like the rich man who wanted desperately wanted to warn his family of eternity without God).

    • What a wonderful example of relational wisdom. The willingness to become deeply and painfully aware of another person’s suffering, and to engage them in such a way as to turn their painful past into a collage of God’s love and grace. May we all be willing to know people at this level.

  3. My wife has done this for years. She will ask a couple we are with; “How did you two meet?” That always has lead to some great conversations. Those of us who talk, have a hard time with this skill. I would rather talk than listen. Yet, listening is what really develops connection and relationships that lead to beneficial relationships. GENUINE!

  4. I used to work the prison ministry and I spoke a lot on forgiveness and forgiving. I would tell them when someone wants to remind you of your past and wrong doing, “Own it.” Tell them yes I have gotten in the gutter with the worst of them, but that is not my story today. You will meet people who want to keep you there and I say don’t let them, make a new story and make it pleasing to God and one day at a time you can get one day further away from what I like to call the ‘old me.’

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