Closed Questions About Thoughts
Closed questions typically request a one- or two-word answer (“yes,” “no,” or a confirmation) or ask for specific facts (e.g., “What was your test grade?” “How old were you when your parents were divorced?” or “Did you call the counseling center?”). Such questions are asked to gather specific information, presumably because the helper is going to use the information for some reason (e.g., to assess the client, to figure out an action plan).
Closed questions have an important but limited role in the helping process. Occasionally, the helper needs to obtain specific information, perhaps because the client has been vague and the helper needs more information to understand the situation. The most direct way to get this specific information is through closed questions. For example, when a client is vague about his or her family situation and the helper is struggling to understand the family dynamics, the helper might ask, “Are you the oldest child?” or “Where are you in the birth order?” In such situations, asking for needed information is better than making assumptions or being confused. The key is that the information is important for the therapeutic process.
Helpers can also use closed questions occasionally to ask for clarification, because they did not hear what the client said, or because they want to determine if clients understood or agreed with what they said. For example:
“What did you say?” “Am I right?”
“Is that what happened?” “Does that sound right to you?” “Did I understand you correctly?”
Another situation in which closed questions are important is during a crisis situation. If there is a crisis (e.g., the potential for suicide, homicide, violence, or abuse of any kind or decompensation into serious mental illness), the process changes from helping to crisis management. In these situations, helpers need to ask clients directly about what is happening so they can make appropriate referrals (see also Chapter 19). If such a situation occurs while you are in training, it is best to immediately seek out supervision from someone who can help you figure out how to handle the situation.
Closed questions are appropriate for certain types of interview situations, such as a medical doctor gathering information to make a diagnosis, interrogations by lawyers during courtroom trials, or job interviews. In these situations, the roles between the interviewer and interviewee are often distinct. The interviewer asks the question to get the desired information; the respondent answers the questions. The control of the interview usually stays with the interviewer, who directs the interaction by asking questions.
An example of an interview situation in which closed questions are useful is in academic advising. When a student comes to me in my role as an academic advisor asking about her or his chances of being accepted into graduate school, my goal is to gather enough information about the student’s credentials (e.g., grade point average, Graduate Record Examination [GRE] scores, research and clinical experience, career goals) to make an assessment. The best and most efficient way of gathering such information quickly is typically through closed questions (e.g., “What are your grade point average and GRE score?” “What research experiences have you had?” “Where do you hope to be employed after graduate school?”). I try to ask the closed questions in a supportive, empathic, nonjudgmental fashion, without attempting to determine what students should do with their lives or pass judgment on their effectiveness as human beings. Once I have the information, I can assess how likely it is that the student will be admitted to graduate school. If I think the student needs help exploring values, feelings, options, and talents, I typically refer him or her to the campus counseling center because these tasks are not part of my role as an academic adviser.
Although closed questions can be helpful in interview situations, they have limited applicability in helping settings because they typically do not help clients explore. Helpers slip into an interviewer role and quickly become responsible for directing the interaction. They become interviewers rather than helpers. Once trapped in the interviewer role and having to think about the next question, helpers often have difficulty changing the course of the session and encouraging exploration. In these situations, clients can become dependent on helpers for the next question. Rather than exploring problems deeply, clients often respond passively and wait for the next question.
Given the theoretical premise of the model presented in this book that helpers are trying to facilitate clients in their self-healing efforts rather than acting as experts who diagnose and “treat” clients, I would assert that helpers do not typically need much specific information. Specific information does not help facilitate exploration of values, feelings, options, and talents. Before asking questions, I thus recommend that helpers think about what they are going to do with the information once it is provided. Helpers can ask themselves, “Whose need am I fulfilling with the information I gain from closed questions?” If the information will be used to facilitate the process of client exploration, helpers should go ahead and ask the question. If the information is desired for voyeurism, curiosity, to fill the silence, or to make a diagnosis and fix the problem, helpers should probably not ask the closed question during the exploration stage.
When helpers use closed questions, they follow the same guidelines for implementation as were proposed for open questions and probes. In other words, helpers should use an empathic and inviting manner to encourage the client to explore rather than just answer the simple question. Furthermore, helpers should refrain from asking multiple closed questions. As with too many open questions and probes asked at once, clients can feel bombarded and have a hard time knowing which questions to answer first. Helpers should also avoid closed questions (questions that have a specific desired answer, e.g., “yes,” “no,” or specific information) that limit exploration. More important, helpers need to notice what happens when they use closed questions. Helpers should determine for themselves whether control of the interaction shifts back to them when they use too many closed questions. Do closed questions make you feel like a grand inquisitor? Helpers can also ask clients for their reactions to determine the effects of the closed questions.
Most beginners use too many closed questions because this skill is a familiar way of interacting outside of the helping situation. In social interactions, people often ask a lot of closed questions to get the details of exactly what happened. The goal in these social interactions is to get the facts of the story rather than to help the person express and explore thoughts, as it is in the helping process.
Helpers sometimes use closed questions inappropriately to satisfy their curiosity. They might ask for information out of voyeurism rather than to help the clients explore. For example, Martha was working on her feelings of jealousy of and competitiveness with her older sister. Martha came into the session and announced that her sister had a date with a “hot” movie star. The helper exclaimed, “Wow, how did she meet him?” or “What was he like?” Although extreme, this example illustrates how helpers can get carried away with asking for specific information to satisfy their own curiosity rather than to help clients explore. It also illustrates how the focus can easily shift away from the client to others.
A particularly egregious type of closed question occurs when the helper is condescending or tries to coerce the client into responding a particular way (e.g., “You really don’t want to keep drinking, do you?”). Such questions take the focus away from the client and make the helper seem like an expert who knows how the
client should behave. I would not go so far as to say that helpers should never use closed questions,
given that they can occasionally be helpful. I do, however, encourage beginning helpers to reduce the number of closed questions they use and instead use more open questions and probes and restatements. When helpers do need to use closed questions to gather specific necessary information (sometimes history is important for gaining awareness of context), they can follow up with the other exploration skills to help clients get back to exploration.
Finally, I should note that I have known some helpers who use closed questions that lead to productive client exploration. How can that be? When I have thought about such interventions, the helper is usually phrasing another intervention in the format of a closed question or is just incredibly empathic and conveying via nonverbal behaviors that the client should explore. I do not necessarily recommend this but say it to note that closed questions are not uniformly bad.
DISTINGUISHING BETWEEN OPEN AND CLOSED QUESTIONS A major distinction is between open and closed questions. Closed questions ask for specific information and thus have a specific answer, whereas open questions ask the recipient to explore or say whatever comes to mind. In helping, we generally use open questions as much as possible because we are trying to facilitate client exploration. Closed questions are used more frequently in interviews (e.g., job interviews, medical consultations) where specific information is required.
To distinguish between closed and open questions, I suggest that you see whether the question can be made to be more open. If it can be made more open, it is probably a closed question. For example, the closed question “Did you get an A?” can be changed to “How do you feel about how you did on the test?” The latter question is more open. One important thing about open questions is that they allow the client to explore what is important to them. For example, Mary was wondering where her client, Sam, was in the family birth order. She almost asked him this as a closed question but decided to practice making it open. She said, “Tell me more about your siblings,” which led to Sam’s exploring in detail the many conflicts and tensions in the family and how he felt everyone babied him because he was the youngest. Mary got far more information than she probably would have with a closed question. Exhibit 8.4 shows how closed questions can be transformed into open questions or probes.
E XHIB IT 8 . 4 Examples of Transforming Closed into Open Questions/Probes
“Have you thought about calling a friend tonight?” → “What could you do tonight?” “How many siblings do you have?”→ “Tell me about your family.” “Did you talk to your mother about it?” → “How did you feel after the event?” “Do you want to talk about your reactions?” → “What were your reactions?” “What time did you get up this morning?” → “How are you feeling about the amount of
sleep you get?” “Did you have a happy childhood?” → “Tell me about your childhood.”
Disclosures of Similarities
In disclosures of similarities, helpers reveal personal information about ways in which they are like the clients to help clients feel less alone or different (see Exhibit 8.5). Yalom (1995) described how universality is an important mechanism of change because it enables clients to feel that they are not the only ones who have been in similar situations. In later sections of this volume, I cover other types of disclosures (of feelings, insight, and strategies) that are more appropriate for helping.