Questions: open, closed and easy.

It’s worth looking closely at the advice we’re often given in counselling training to not use too many closed questions. Some closed questions encourage your client to reflect deeply, “How do would you rate your anxiety on a scale of one to ten?” may well challenge your client to look objectively and closely at his feelings; and some clients respond to closed question in much the same way as to open ones, answering the explicit enquiry and then immediately exploring the issues around their answer.

A closed question like “How many children do you have?” is (generally) easy to answer because there is one obvious straightforward response, such as “Two”. One of the problems with asking easy questions is that your client doesn’t get much out of answering them. Counselling is a strange discourse, the person doing most of the talking is also the person learning the most from the exchange, but there isn’t a lot to learn from stating what you already know. Easy questions need to justify the time they take; if your client isn’t gaining directly from being asked a question then what is its point, how is it benefiting your client?

A bigger problem with easy questions is that they take autonomy from your client. Your client has ready access to the information that you are requesting, so by asking an easy question you’re asking your client to do something that she had the option of doing but has elected not to do. It might be a trivial choice or an oversight on her part but the feeling of you taking that control still has an impact on the session; some clients will answer you and then take control back by spontaneously going on to explore related issues, others will just answer the question asked and leave control with you.

It is the context of a particular session at a particular time that determines whether a closed question is easy or not. If your client has a complex family structure as a result of, say, both he and his partner having adult and young children from earlier marriages, then asking “How many children do you have?” might well prompt him to reflect on his relationships as he decides who he considers to be and not to be his children. The question wouldn’t be an easy one to answer. In that case and he would likely feel the need to give the number further explanation and by doing so he would be taking control of the session to lead it in a direction of his choosing.

If you are trying to break a closed question habit then there is an alternative to trying to think of open forms of the closed questions that pop into your head. Instead of looking at your questions you could try looking to your client and searching what they share with you for questions that they don’t know the answer to yet.

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