“The wise man doesn’t give the right answers, he poses the right questions.”
– Claude Levi-Strauss
Here’s a question. When is a question more than a question?
When it’s a reframe, an invitation to inner focus, a presupposition to positive change, a way of clarifying your client’s real needs… and a precursor to hypnotic trance.
One tool can have many uses. Assuming a question is only a way of eliciting information is akin to using an iPad as a doorstop. Yes, it works that way. But it can do so much more.
For example, Socratic questioning has been found to be effective for depression,1 because the answers it can produce widen our vision beyond the narrowness of a problematic perception.
So what can a well-put and well-timed question do (other than extract factual information)?
Answer through experience, not words
Not all questions need to be, or indeed can be answered in the way they were posed.
“What’s it going to be like, I wonder, for you to feel that amazing sensation for the very first time?”
Sure, the person can try to answer through guesstimation. But the real answer to such a question comes through experience, not words.
A question, or series of questions, can be used as a conversational invitation to go inward, on an inner search, to experience ‘in sight’ during light (or deeper) therapeutic trance.
- “And will it be, I wonder, your left or your right hand that begins to notice that deepening comfort first…?”
- “What does it feel like to feel that good… I wonder whether you can notice that feeling or something of it again… now or maybe in a few moments?”
- “And when, I wonder, will you notice that first full night’s sleep?”
A question like that also does something else powerful.
The powerful potency of expectation
Positive expectation is a hugely powerful human resource:
- 80 per cent of Prozac’s efficacy is attributable to its consumers’ belief in it.2
- Rumination with hope mitigates the usually depressing effects of excessive mulling.3
- Older people with negative beliefs about aging are significantly more likely to develop dementia than those who embrace their senior years with positivity.4
Expectation matters, which means that how much your client believes in their own therapeutic potential makes an actual difference to that potential.
You and I need to be able to engender hope as part of therapy in our clients. But, crucially, we need to do this in a way that doesn’t cause them to automatically resist crass positivity. How? With well-designed questions.
Questions can be carriers of hope. They can smuggle it in without the client even realizing – and without them having the chance to resist it.Questions can be carriers of hope...Click To Tweet
Positivity, or perhaps just greater realism, can be made digestible through a question which can simultaneously expand horizons, produce useful information and subtly engender positive expectation.
Asking about a better future
“What will the greatest change be in your life, do you suppose, once you get rid of those panic attacks once and for all? What are you most looking forward to?”
The question implies as a given that your client has the capacity to overcome the anxiety episodes but then, like a conjurer’s trick, simply gets the client to focus elsewhere (so they don’t have to reject the positive idea).
The question isn’t whether or not they can come to control the panic, but what will be the greatest thing about not panicking? The question asks about the “greatest” thing, so there’s a further implication that there will be other good things too.
Just like that, we’ve reframed the problem. If you’re interested in learning more about this crucial technique, I have written a whole book about reframing and run and an online course on conversational reframing.
Questions are a natural aspect of conversation (and if you never ask other people questions during normal conversation… well, you might want to look at that!). So asking your clients questions is not in itself going to sound alarm bells in their head or make them resist. But, slowly and surely, it’s helping them build an internal model of what life could be like.
Clients need to know where they need to go. Because just maybe they have gotten into the habit of merely focusing on what they don’t want. This is a start, but if you are travelling some place you need to at least have an idea of where that is.
Solution-focused questions can help build psychological templates of how to be and what to do .
Good questions can also do something else miraculous.
Widening the doors of perception
Samantha’s line manager was always criticizing Samantha’s work. Samantha felt unable to stand up for herself. I asked her what her line manager might be most afraid of.
“Gosh,” she said, “I had never thought of that! I had just been thinking about my own fear of her!”
Instantly we have a reframe, a wider view simply from a question. The reframe helped Samantha start seeing this manager differently and was a precursor to her finding the calm to actually stick up for herself more – which she did, with good effect.
Now, of course, maybe the line manager wasn’t particularly afraid of anything. Maybe she was a self-confident narcissist. But that’s not the point. The point is, the question helped Samantha start to see wider.
Asking someone who has been through some really tough times about the main things they learned from the experiences also helps widen their frame of reference and implies that perhaps it wasn’t all wasted time.
Even a simple compliment can be a reframe if the receiver of the sincere compliment has never seen themselves in that way before. And questions are the perfect way to carry those compliments. We know that people with low self-esteem can feel almost insulted by a compliment because it jars so disrespectfully with their reality. But a question can smuggle one in.
- “So when you were brave enough to say that, how did they react?”
- “So she didn’t respond well to your good intentions ?”
- “Where else could you apply your creativity, do you think?”
Notice the focus of the questions distracts somewhat from the inferred compliment, which is delivered as an unexamined given of the situation.
A well-crafted question can help a client separate their core identity from the problem without labouring the idea.
You are not it and it is not you!
Some questions act to remove the difficult emotional pattern from the client’s core identity as well as reframing it:
- “How does that anger try to get you to do things you really don’t want to be doing?”
- “When you’ve left that depression behind, what will you be doing more of in your life?”
- “What lies does that impulse to drink try to con you with on those occasions?”
We can thereby help our clients amplify their sense of possibility as a being who is much larger than the problem. Questions of this kind can help clients transcend their labels without the usual platitudes of “You are not your anger!” Clients’ answers to these kinds of questions can also elicit good material to work with therapeutically.
Okay, so that was a rather incomplete summary of what questions can do – but I hope it conveyed some of the power of questioning.
Here are 17 really useful solution-focused questions:
1. “What improvements have you noticed since booking the appointment to see me and coming along today?”
It’s amazing how often clients report they have “felt more positive”, “slept better” or “felt a little calmer” since making the appointment. If this is the case, then therapy had already started for them. We need to know what’s different (often it’s the addition of new hope), and we need to build on the pre-session momentum. But we might miss this altogether if we don’t ask.
2. “If a miracle occurred tonight as you slept and tomorrow the problem was no longer there…?”
Yes, the good old miracle question!
There are many variations of the miracle question, and they all go something like this: “If a miracle occurred tonight as you slept and in the morning, the problem was no longer there, what would life be like? What would be different? What would you be doing differently?”
The client is encouraged to let go of limiting ideas like “that could never happen” because, after all, this is simply a thought experiment. But it can show us – and, more importantly, them – what they need and want.
3. “What times have there been when the problem didn’t happen when you might have expected it to?”
It’s natural to ask questions about the problem. But we discover so much good therapeutic material from asking about when it hasn’t happened, and why not. The client often knows, deep down, how to avoid the problem. We just have to help them discover it.
“When did you notice that you just weren’t nervous (or sad, or whatever) when you might have expected to be ?” Then: “How did you do that? What were you doing differently? What was happening differently?” The answers can be therapeutic gold.
4. “How will you know when you no longer need to come and see me?”
We can shape goals through this question. We can create a scaffold on which to build therapy. Maybe the answer is “When I feel strong enough to…” or “When I can sleep through the night and worry much less!”
We are also indicating that therapy is temporary. We are supplying a service for a limited time – the implication being that this problem will not last forever . The client’s answers also serve as a handy point of reference to assess the client’s progress and success once therapy is done.
5. “What would we see if we watched a video of you ‘doing’ your problem?”
We might ask this jokingly, but we can persist with it because it can produce useful nuggets. This type of question helps the client start to see the problem ‘from the outside’ and thereby strengthens their ‘observing self‘. And it can also give us valuable information as to the steps or stages of the problem behaviour, which may be useful when we help disrupt unhelpful patterns.
6. “What will be the first small change you’ll notice once that depression has started to lift?”
Depression and other high-stress conditions drive absolutist or extremist thinking. The client will describe their reality in terms of all-or-nothing statements.5 You might hear them use terms such as ‘totally’, ‘completely’, ‘always’, ‘disaster’, ‘perfect’ or ‘never’.
Once we calm clients down, their thinking will tend to become more moderate naturally. But we can also ask questions that require more nuanced thinking.
So rather than “I will be happy!” or “I won’t have any problems”, which are absolutist statements, the question above might elicit a style of thinking that is not typically depressive: “I will start to feel a little more hopeful in the mornings” or “I will start to see at least my best friend a little more.”
A variation on this question would be: “What one small difference in your day would make things better?”
7. “On a scale of one to ten…?”
We can use scaling in therapy for so many different issues, from pain to traumatic feelings. Grading the level of a problem can help the client do less absolutist thinking.
“On a scale of one to ten, one being the saddest and ten being the happiest, where are you today?”
This question takes us away from all-or-nothing thinking, takes off the perfectionistic pressure to be totally ‘cured’, gives us clues as to what small thing we can work toward next, and can also give us material for the next question.
8. “What stops you…?”
If, say, someone rates their level of happiness as a 4 today, you might say: “What stops you being a 3 today, or lower?” They might say: “Well, I saw my neighbour this morning and they were really sweet”, or “I feel a bit better being here”, or “I generally feel a bit better on Fridays because work has finished for the week.”
9. “What will you be doing differently when this problem has been resolved?”
Some clients have never thought about the reality of not having their problem in future. Clients may become so wrapped up in their heads and focused on feelings that they forget that a life lived is also made up of actions.
So we can ask them about the future once the problem has gone.
- “What will you be doing with the extra hours once the obsessive compulsive disorder has been kicked out for good?”
- “What will you do day-to-day once you’ve left that depression behind?”
- “What will you do in the evenings once you no longer have to drink three bottles of wine?”
We get a sense of what the client might need more of in their life and also help create a template in the mind, an expectation, of a future beyond the problem.
10. “What will other people notice in you?”
This question helps the client get a sense of seeing things from the outside, to see wider and further. They might say something like:
- “They would see me smiling more.”
- “They would see a spring in my step.”
- “They would see me getting on with things.”
- “They would see me making jokes again.”
It can be useful to go from asking someone this question to asking them to enter hypnotic trance and start to see themselves in that preferred future, looking how they have just described. And from there it’s not such a big step to feeling those preferred feelings and then doing those preferred actions.
We could also ask…
11. “Who will notice these improvements first?”
This again helps the client see themselves from outside their own limited perspective. They might quite enjoy thinking about just who will first notice their positive changes. One client told me:
“It sounds weird, but I think my dog will notice my improved mood first, as I’ll be more responsive to him. And also the postman, because I always used to chat with him and I haven’t done that in a while!”
12. “What other parts of your life will be helped as you overcome this?”
Problems have ripple effects, but so do solutions. We might ask this question and find that the community as a whole will benefit, or their finances will benefit, or their physical health… and so forth.
13. “What will be the best aspect of…?”
Again, this implies multiple knock-on benefits. The best aspect of coming out of a depression might be to feel better (duh), but once they’ve told you that you can ask about all the other benefits too.
“What will be the best aspect of sleeping better? What will be the best aspect of controlling the drinking?” The number of potential answers is endless: better concentration, better social life, more exercise…
14. “If you were someone else who really loves you, what would you say to yourself about what you really need?”
This could be a real person who has (or has had, if the person is no longer living) your client’s best interests at heart. Or it could be an abstract person.
This thought experiment can also be a gateway into inner work in which your client could imagine listening to the words of someone who can really help define what they need (which might include giving themselves less of a hard time! Or more self-respect).
15. “Can a person make mistakes but still be basically a good person?”
This is a very useful question for someone who feels they are a ‘bad person’, for example. Or for someone who has described themselves as ‘stupid’, we might ask, “Can a smart person still sometimes do stupid things?”
These are prime examples of Socratic questioning and can really help to diminish over-reliance on depressive, absolutist thinking.
16. “Where do you find the strength to…?”
This might seem slightly negative, as though we are inferring that they need so much strength to cope with their problems. But I have found it really useful as a way of eliciting resources from clients.
“Where do you find the strength to get up and go to work every day even though you’ve been feeling that bad?”
They might tell you they do it because they don’t want to let others down (that tells you something instructive about their value system) or because they have to earn money to support the children that they love so much (that tells you about their capacity for love and duty). Where is your client’s source of strength? Where is yours?
17. What might go wrong and how would you deal with that?
This might seem like a negative question, but it can offset despair if things get better then retrograde a bit (after all, you prepared them for this!) and give them the chance to tell you what they need and anything you haven’t yet addressed – which perhaps you now can.
For example, one woman I asked this question of told me: “Well, if my co-worker shouts at me again I’m worried I might go back to square one and just start binging!”
So we worked on her becoming more assertive with this garrulous co-worker, and that was another therapeutic win. Asking people how they might deal with an unexpected setback gives them a chance to prepare for it, lets them know it need not be the ‘end of the world’, and hands some responsibility to them.
A question of questions
In coaching, teaching or therapy we should always be aware that a question can also be an invitation – to change, to see new perspectives, to widen our view on something. In fact, really good questions will have all of these benefits.
We can imply something by questions, and in so doing smuggle a sincere compliment or positive expectation past the rigid rocks of fossilized negativity.
A good question can also build rapport.
Keeping it real for them
If I ask someone who is acting out of a strong negative bias about their mood I may turn them off and break rapport if I seem too clashingly upbeat. I could ask them, “When do you feel happier?” But their psychology, as it stands, doesn’t respond to positives. They may simply shut the question down with a resounding “Never!”
But I could ask the same question in a way that connects with their reality: “When do you feel the worst?” I have asked a question which can sit squarely within their frame of reality, yet is in a way the same question as the jarringly upbeat one.
If they tell me that Monday mornings are the worst, then what they’ve also implied is that Tuesday mornings are better. We might then go on to explore what’s different about Tuesday mornings (not ‘better’ but ‘different’). We can retain rapport but still go down a solution-oriented, positive pathway.
We use questions to connect to our clients’ current realities, as a way of starting to lead them gently to wider and healthier viewpoints.
But the importance of asking good questions goes way beyond therapy. Perhaps, too, the quality of our own lives ultimately equates to the depth and sincerity of the questions we ask – of life and of ourselves.
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