Counselling – Open Questions
One of the counselling skills that students learn through training is how to question clients appropriately and what sort of questions to ask.
I believe this skill comes with practice. In training, we use the term ‘speaker’ and ‘listener’; this gives students an easy way of referring to their roles when practising skills, and provides a common language that we can all understand.
Tutor: Tom, when you were in the role of speaker, what did Nafiza do as a listener that helped you share your story?
When thinking about a question, first ask yourself whether it is necessary. A basic rule here is to ask a question only if you feel it will:
- clarify your understanding
- help the speaker to explore their own process.
Common pitfalls in questioning are when the speaker uses questions that are ‘closed’, as responses can only be in the form of a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.
“Do you feel sad?” No.
“Do you feel happy?” No.
Such interactions could go on forever and feel to the listener like some sort of bizarre parlour game – or, even worse, a police interview.
What are the best questions to ask ?
Well, like the question above, these are ‘open’ questions, a type of enquiry that only the speaker can expand upon, for example – How do you feel? What would you like to do?
Open questions, if used respectfully, will help build a trusting relationship where the speaker feels safe to explore what is going on for them.
One final observation: be very careful with the ‘why’ question , as sometimes this can feel very judgemental and sound like a teacher questioning a child.
Try swapping the word ‘why’ for ‘what’, so instead of saying, ‘Why did you do that?’, ask, ‘What made you do that?’.
You will be surprised how much better the conversation flows, and how much more you will both find out!
In the term ‘appropriate questioning’, the word ‘appropriate’ is really important. That’s because so often, questions are inappropriate – and this can derail the empathy within the counselling relationship. Appropriate questioning, meanwhile, can deepen relational depth with the client.
The use of questions is usually covered quite early on in counselling training – I do so with my Level 2 learners (in the introduction to counselling, Counselling Concepts). As well as introducing the counselling theory that I cover in this blog post, I warn them that questioning is to be used only when 100% necessary. And very often, questions are not necessary.
Questioning in Person-Centred Counselling
I am working from a person-centred base here. So it may well be that, in other modalities, questions that delve into, explore and expand on elements of the narrative that the client is bringing are encouraged and are appropriate. But in the person-centred approach, we believe that the client is the expert; this is what Carl Rogers told us. It’s not for us to guide the client. It’s for the client to guide us, and for us to walk with them in their subjective reality. That is the empathic bond that we have with the client.
If we ask a question, it is for our knowledge – for us to better understand what the client is bringing. We must be really careful that our questions don’t set the agenda – that we are allowing the client to do this, even when (and this can be difficult) we can see that the meat of what the client needs to work on is in a different direction. We might feel we can see it: it’s there, it’s massive, and the client is so close to it – they just need a tiny nudge and then they’ll see it. So if we ask the right question, the client is suddenly going to see this massive mound of opportunity for them to grow. But this is not our journey; it’s the client’s journey. It’s for them to find the mound of opportunity, and it may well not be the same one that we see.
In the video below, Bob Cooke and Rory Lees-Oakes explore two specific forms of questioning in counselling and psychotherapy, specifically phenomenological and inquiring questioning techniques.
Please watch to explore this fascinating area of questioning in the world of counselling and psychotherapy.