Counselling in Oxfordshire

Bill Imlah :: Counselling in Oxfordshire

Blog » When and how do I use questions in counselling?

3 Jul 2016

Asking questions is one way for me to find out what's going on for you , but it has its limitations.

I use questions sparingly in counselling, and usually prefer open ones  - questions that invite a wide range of responses, rather than closed (ones that invite a limited number of responses, like "yes" or "no").

Open questions tend encourage you to go on speaking, giving you more choice over how to respond and what to focus on, and so can be more valuable to help you get in touch with your feelings:

  • How did you feel when they said that to you?
  • How are you feeling now?
  • What would you like to focus on in this session?

But asking questions has its limitations, too.  Questions tend to put pressure on people to respond to cue, and may seem like a demand.  And I'll avoid some types of question altogether  - such as rhetorical ones ("Isn't that just typical?"), leading questions ("Wouldn’t it be better if you confronted him?") or multiple questions (“What did you do next? Were you upset? What did she mean?")  - because they're distinctly unhelpful.

For some people, questioning can feel like interrogation  - creating anxiety the sense that it takes control away from them in relation to what they want to focus on and talk about. When someone wants to be listened to, or longs to be heard, too much questioning can undermine this, and so as a rule I use them lightly.

If I want to ask a question, I'll first reflect on why.  If it’s to clarify something that I didn’t understand, and it doesn't interrupt the flow of the session, I might do so right away.

Client:“On the other hand my boss has been really nice to me at times"

Me: "Your old boss?"

If it can wait, I'll make a mental note, and then may only ask the question later if the answer's still unclear (and still important) later.  Often the need to ask a particular question can become unnecessary over time, so a little patience can help avoid breaking the flow of the session unncessarily.

And professional counsellors would normally avoid asking questions just out of curiosity, as it wouldn't normally be helpful, and could take the focus off the work or even shut down the topic.

Client: "I cheered up a bit yesterday because I've just bought a car."

Helper: "Did you drive to the session, then?"

"Why" questions 

Asking 'why' can be experienced as a challenge to the other person, so I'll tend to avoid those.

For many people, it can feel like they are being asked to justify themselves. They may feel as if they have to defend their position and could experience the question as hostile, as a negative assessment of them:

  • Why did he leave you? 
  • Why did you turn and run away? 
  • Why did you feel like that? 
  • Why didn’t you go back and help?

Do I need to ask a question at all?

Asking questions can potentially disrupt the flow of the session, so if I need more information from you, I'll first consider less intrusive ways of encouraging you to respond:

  • repeating a word or phrase you've just used:

    Client:  “I’ve been feeling stuck ever since then."

    Me: “feeling stuck"

  • paraphrasing what you said in my own words:

    Client: "I’ve been feeling stuck ever since then."

    Me: "You don’t know how to move forwards."

  • using silence to give you time to work out what to say next:

    Client: "I feel so confused … [furrows brow and looks aside] …"

    Me: [staying silent but attentive]

  • Client: "… I never thought that I’d miss her so much."


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