Using questions as a helping skill

3 Jul 2012 |  for trainees | by Bill, writer at UK & Ireland Counsellor Directory

Asking questions is one way of finding out more from the person we are listening to.

In active listening, it helps to ask open questions, ones that invite a wide range of responses, rather than closed ones (ones that invite a limited number of responses, like “yes” or “no”).

Open questions encourage the person to go on speaking, and give them freer choice of how to respond and what to focus on, and can be valuable to help the client get in touch with their 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?

In general though, questions tend to put pressure on the other person to respond to cue, and may feel like a demand. They can cause anxiety or take control away from the person 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 sense, and so should be used lightly.

If you want to ask a question, first check with yourself why you are doing so. If it’s to clarify something that you didn’t understand, and it feels important, and you can’t think of an alternative way, then you might ask a question:

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

    Therapist: “Your old boss?”

If it’s just out of curiosity then it may not be helpful.

    Client: “I cheered up a bit yesterday because I bought a new Ford Focus.”

    Therapist: “Is that the new model with fuel injection?”

Do you need to ask a question?

Before you use a question, make sure also that you’ve thought about other ways of encouraging the person to tell you more:

  • repeating a word or phrase they’ve just used: Client: “I’ve been feeling stuck ever since then.” Helper: “feeling stuck”

  • paraphrasing what the person said in your own words:

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

    Helper: “You don’t know how to move forwards.”

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

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

    Helper [stays silent but attentive]

    Client: “ … I never thought that I’d miss her so much.”

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