Questions in Counselling
Questions in counselling is classed as a basic skill. The counsellor uses open questions to clarify his or her understanding of what the client is feeling. Leading questions are to be avoided as they can impair the counselling relationship.
One of the first 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.
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.
Tutor: “Tom, when you were in the role of speaker, what did Nafiza do as a listener that helped you share your story?”
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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.
Clarifying means using open questions to make sure you understand what is being said so you are not confused and the client feels full understood to do this effectively you need to understand the type of questions to ask.
Have you ever been in a situation where you have been asked one question after another?.
It can feel like you are being interrogated, rather than listened to!
Someone who is skilled in the ‘art of listening’ will use open questions, using them sparingly, to help you clarify what the client has said so that you can reflect and paraphrase more accuracy.
Open Ended Questions
These generally begin with’ How…?’ ‘What…?’ ‘Who…?’
They require an answer other than ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
They may be used to gain information (what happened as a result?), explore thoughts, feelings, attitudes and opinions (what were you hoping to achieve?) or to consider hypothetical situations (how might you deal with. ..?).
‘Why?’ questions are useful open questions but beware of making them sound too judgmental (e.g. ‘Why did you do that?).
Counselling questions to ask clients
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.
Closed questions invite a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer and may be unhelpful in terms of the replies given.
Many people believe they are asking ‘open questions’ when in fact they are asking complicated ‘closed questions’.
Repeated use of ‘closed questions’ may result in the client saying less and less and the Counsellor feeling pressurised to ask more and more questions to keep the relationship going.
Makes sure that you only use questions to clarify your understanding, do not be intrusive, and remember that when a client is answering a question they are not accessing the part of the brain which deals with emotions.
Questioning in Person-Centred Counselling
In the person-centred approach to counselling, 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.