Questions during the counselling session can help to open up new areas for discussion. They can assist to pinpoint an issue and they can assist to clarify information that at first may seem ambiguous to the counsellor. Questions that invite clients to think or recall information can aid in a client’s journey of self-exploration.

Counsellors should be knowledgeable about the different types of questioning techniques, including the appropriate use of them and likely results. It is also important to be aware and cautious of over-questioning.

Asking too many questions sends a message to the client that the counsellor is in control and may even set up a situation in which the client feels the counsellor has all the answers. In determining effective questioning techniques it is important to consider the nature of the client, their ongoing relationship with the counsellor and the issue/s at hand.

There are two main types of questions used in counselling: (1) Open and (2) Closed.

Open Questions

Open questions are those that cannot be answered in a few words, they encourage the client to speak and offer an opportunity for the counsellor to gather information about the client and their concerns.

Typically open questions begin with: what, why, how or could.

For example:

  1. What has brought you here today?
  2. Why do you think that?
  3. How did you come to consider this?
  4. Could you tell me what brings you here today?

“How” questions tend to invite the client to talk about their feelings. “What” questions more often lead to the emergence of facts. “When” questions bring about information regarding timing of the problem, and this can include events and information preceding or following the event. “Where” questions reveal the environment, situation or place that the event took place, and “Why” questions usually give the counsellor information regarding the reasons of the event or information leading up to the event.

How? Most often enables talk about feelings and/or process.
What? Most often lead to facts and information.
When? Most often brings out the timing of the problem, including what preceded and followed it.
Where? Most often enables discussion about the environment and situations.
Why? Most often brings out reasons.

It should be noted that care must be taken by the counsellor when asking “why” questions. Why questions can provoke feelings of defensiveness in clients and may encourage clients to feel as though they need to justify themselves in some way.

Closed Questions

Closed questions are questions that can be answered with a minimal response (often as little as “yes” or “no”). They can help the counsellor to focus the client or gain very specific information. Such questions begin with: is, are or do.

For example:

  1. Is that your coat?
  2. Are you living alone?
  3. Do you enjoy your job?

While questioning techniques can be used positively to draw out and clarify issues relevant to the counselling session, there is also the very real danger of over-using questions or using questioning techniques that can have a negative impact on the session. The wrong types of questioning techniques, at the wrong time, in the hands of an unskilled interviewer or counsellor, can cause unnecessary discomfort and confusion to the client.

Observation Skills

By accurately observing non-verbal behaviour, a counsellor can gauge the affect her/his words and actions have upon the client.

For example, when a client enters into the office of the counsellor, the counsellor can gain some indication of how the client is feeling about the session (are they reticent, comfortable, awkward?) by the way the client walks in, takes their seat, and greets the counsellor. If a client is resentful about the counselling session taking place, they may keep their eyes lowered, seem dismissive of the counsellor and sit in a closed position, not encouraging communication.

A counsellor can also gauge the effectiveness of their words by carefully observing the facial expression and eye contact of a client. If a counsellor asks a question that the client may find embarrassing to answer, the client may lower their eyes, or their head, or look away. This will tell the counsellor that the client might be uncomfortable with that statement or question.