We all ask and answer questions as part of our daily living. The ways that questions are asked can be helpful or detrimental in gaining the cooperation of those involved in the interaction. This is especially true if we are aiming to help another person. ‘Control’ and ‘authority’ seem to be strong words, but these things are essential to consider when discussing the right questions a therapist or counsellor should ask. If you are aiming to help someone, why are you doing it? Do you think you know what is best for that person? Or do you believe that they can be trusted to know what is best for them? Can your questions facilitate and enable them to achieve that? Your views about who has control and authority will affect the way you ask questions.
Questions can be categorised in the following ways:
These can be useful when you are trying to elicit facts, e.g., filling in a form.
A closed question will often get a brief and factual answer – for example, ‘How old are you?’ ‘I’m thirty-two’, or they may get a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer. This may be the intention, but they are of limited use in situations where it is essential to establish trust and good rapport. The control is with the questioner, who may then have to resort to further questions. This can feel like an interrogation if it goes on for too long.
In general, closed questions give control of both the topic and the extent of the answer to the questioner.
Open questions leave the control with the person to disclose as much as they wish – for example, ‘How are things going for you now?’
Proper use of open questions can be constructive in eliciting feelings. Open questions often begin with Who? How? What? Where? (and sometimes Why?, but we’ll look at Why? below).
A ‘Why?’ question is a form of an open question. However, asking ‘Why?’ may sometimes be counterproductive. Here are three ways it might be unhelpful.
1. If you ask people why they think other people behave as they do, it may encourage a new perspective, but it can also divert the focus. Instead of focusing on their feelings, you are speculating about your own, often with a tone of disbelief.
2. Often people do not know ‘why’, and that may be the very reason they want to talk it through with someone else. They may be thinking: ‘If I knew the answer to that, I wouldn’t need you!’
3. ‘Why?’ can also be unhelpful, since ‘the reason why’ is frequently in the past (and cannot be changed), or in a current state that cannot be changed.
Multiple questions can be confusing – we do not know which question to answer first. It is also possible to use them as a form of control.
Sometimes, the second in a pair of questions attempts to provide the answer. For example, ‘Does it hurt? Or only a bit?’ could make a vulnerable person think that they should say: ‘only a bit’ as this is what is expected of them. The either/or multiple questions may also be controlled, as in this example directed at a child: ‘Are you crying because you’re in pain, or because you want to go home?’
Leading questions are perhaps the most potentially damaging. They are another attempt to control answers, and they have no place in helping others. Sometimes they are used for legitimate reasons, as when TV interviewers challenge politicians who should be able to answer for themselves and expect to be questioned in this way as part of their job. If you listen to these interviews you will notice that many questions begin:
- ‘But surely …?’ and
- ‘Isn’t it the case that …?’ and
- ‘Don’t you agree that …?’
Sometimes, the ‘leading’ part comes at the end of the question:
- ‘…weren’t you?’
- ‘…didn’t you?’
With leading questions, questioners assert that their views are the correct ones and that the responder should agree with them. The tone of voice is sometimes scornful, implying that the person being addressed is foolish if he or she does not agree. Again, this approach is not appropriate in helping situations.
Establishing good rapport is an essential part of using counselling skills. The Academy for Distance Learning provides a range of courses on counselling, helpful for those who use counselling skills in their work and elsewhere.