Have you ever asked someone a question, only to have them answer with another question? It’s annoying! Isn’t it? In counseling sessions, you may notice that your therapist will do this to you a lot! Why do therapists ask so many questions? In short, that is where the therapy is! I asked our Executive Director, Darrell Provinse to elaborate on this and here is what he said:
1. TO GATHER INFORMATION
There are many reasons why we use questions in therapy. There are many situations where the therapist is legitimately gathering information. Sometimes, it’s less about getting objective information and more about getting the perspective of the client.
By asking a question, for instance, of both people in a couple, about the same situation, they might even respond with “well the other person just told you,” or “they told you when they were in last week”, or something like that, but obviously, everyone experiences a situation differently and just because one person told the story, even if they were attempting to tell it objectively, it doesn’t mean that it wasn’t viewed through their lens. The other person may have some additional information or put a different emphasis on some other events. We see that in the Gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John), where we have four versions of the same story, or at least, multiple versions of the same story, and each is told slightly differently, because they’re making a different point, a different element stood out to them, etc.
2. TO UTILIZE MORE OF THE BRAIN IN PROCESSING
Then, there are other reasons for asking questions, it’s not always about gathering information. When you make a statement to someone, if they are paying attention, only a small amount of their brain is utilized. If you were to look at brain imagery, you would see that only a small region in the temporal area (the auditory processing), and another small region in the prefrontal cortex, would light up, but the brain would be relatively inactive if you were just telling people something, or just making statements. When you ask a question, it requires more of the brain. In fact, we are conditioned that if a question is asked, then there should be an answer, so the syntax portion of the brain, as well as the auditory portion is accessed. The memory region is accessed because if we are going to give an answer, then we are very likely going to be retrieving something from our memory. There are multiple areas of the brain that would light up, so you are getting more of the brain involved, which means that you are getting depth of processing. So, by asking a question, we are helping the client to utilize more of their brain to process whatever is being discussed in session.
3. TO HELP A CLIENT RATIONALLY WORK THROUGH A PROBLEM (SOCRATIC METHOD)
Using the Socratic Method, is another reason for the therapist to ask questions. Socrates would ask questions very often, not because he didn’t know the answer, but because he wanted to help his student find the answer. It’s like the concept of “Give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” Your therapist could give you the answer, but it’s like if they were lifting weights for you – you’re not going to get stronger watching someone else life weights, you’re going to have to do it yourself. So, part of asking Socratic, or leading, questions is to help the client rationally and syllogistically work through a situation or problem, in order to arrive at a solution.
4. TO POINT OUT THAT THERE IS A QUESTION TO BE ANSWERED
Another reason, why we ask the question and we don’t necessarily expect that the client will have an answer, is to introduce the concept that there IS a question. It may be that in their life, they have acted with certain scripts or interjects for their entire life, and they’ve never bothered to ask “is there an alternative approach or hypothesis?” So, by asking a question, what the therapist is actually doing, is planting the seeds or introducing the idea that there is, in fact, another possible way of viewing something or another possible outcome.
5. TO LEGITIMIZE THE CLIENT’S OWN QUESTIONS
Another reason for asking a question is to legitimize a question. There are some people who have lived their entire life and they have been taught NOT to question authority, or what they’ve been told, or their parents, or not to question their interjects, etc., and so what it does, is it legitimizes the possibility or the concept of independent thought.
6. TO GET THE CLIENT THINKING
Another reason, for asking a question, and not really expecting that the client is going to have a well thought out answer, is to get the person thinking in that direction, so it may be that the therapist asks the client, “where did this come from?” or “when did you first have that thought?” It may not be that the client would have a ready answer, but it may start them thinking and asking themselves those questions, and that then, is something that the client can begin thinking about on their own, and between sessions. Just because they don’t have a ready answer, it is not viewed in any way, as a failing on their part, but really, an opportunity for them to explore. It’s very often a matter of planting a seed or inoculating them.
7. TO IDENTIFY & DISPUTE FAULTY COGNITIONS
A lot of times, in asking a question, we MAY anticipate that the client has AN answer, but we don’t always expect that they have an objectively accurate answer. Which is also, kind of, the point. Jesus used this method, quite a bit too, as well as rhetorical questioning and Socratic method. Again, not really expecting an accurate answer, but to create a sense of irony or to demonstrate a behavioral paradox. So, we anticipate the answer the client will give will not be objectively accurate, and this is not to make the client feel inferior or to judge them as being ‘less than’ for having the wrong answer, but it makes it pretty clear then, that they are operating from a faulty interject, script, or cognition. So, we can get the client to articulate the answer, and it then allows them to HEAR the faulty cognition. Very often, what will then happen is the client will say, “oh, now that I hear it out loud it sounds kind of silly, huh?” So it’s not for the edification of the counselor, but to help the client articulate an inner script that they are working from and when they say it out loud it doesn’t really sound adaptive, and it gives us a chance to examine it, refine it, dispute it, replace it, etc.