Open Questions and Probes for Thoughts
Questions come to most of us naturally. We are curious and want to get to know other people, and questions are a most direct way to elicit information. Exhibit 8.2 provides an overview of the different types of questions that are used in the helping process. In this chapter, the focus is only on open and closed questions about thoughts, but other types (e.g., open questions and probes for insight) are presented and discussed later in the book.
E XHIB IT 8 . 2 Types of Questions and Probes
RATIONALE FOR USING OPEN QUESTIONS AND PROBES ABOUT THOUGHTS Open questions and probes about thoughts help clients clarify and explore their thoughts. When using these leads, helpers do not want a specific answer from clients but instead want clients to explore whatever comes to mind. In other words, helpers do not purposely limit the nature of clients’ responses to a “yes,” “no,” or one- or two-word answer, even though clients may respond that way (see Exhibit 8.3). Whereas open questions are phrased in the form of a question (e.g., “What are your thoughts about that?”), probes are phrased in the form of a statement or directive (e.g., “Tell me more about your thoughts”). The phrasing is different, but the intent for both is to facilitate exploration.
E XHIB IT 8 . 3 Overview of Open Questions and Probes About Thoughts
WHY USE OPEN QUESTIONS AND PROBES TO GET AT THOUGHTS? Many researchers have found that open questions are used frequently in therapy and are generally perceived as being moderately helpful for the therapy process (Barkham & Shapiro, 1986; Elliott, 1985; Elliott, Barker, Caskey, & Pistrang, 1982; Fitzpatrick, Stalikas, & Iwakabe, 2001; Hill, Helms, Tichenor, et al., 1988; Martin, Martin, & Slemon, 1989). These studies suggest that open questions and probes can be a useful intervention for encouraging clients to talk longer and more deeply about their concerns. I recently heard a person say that the three kindest words you could hear are “Tell me more.” Indicating curiosity and interest through judicious use of open questions and probes for thoughts or probes can truly be a gift.
Open questions and probes serve several purposes. They can be particularly useful when clients are rambling, repeating the same thoughts but not really exploring deeply. They can also be used to help clients clarify their thoughts when they are confused, lead clients to think about new things, help clients unravel conflicting thoughts, or provide structure for clients who are not very verbal or articulate. Clients often get stuck describing their problems, and open questions and probes help them think about different aspects of the problem. Open questions
and probes can also be used to clarify or focus and are particularly helpful when clients are starting the session, rambling, being vague or unclear, or stuck. As with restatements, open questions and probes demonstrate that the helper is listening and interested in the client. They show that the helper is tracking what the client says and is interested enough to encourage the client to keep talking.
In addition, if a client cannot think of what to talk about, open questions and probes are a good way for helpers to provide direction. For example, if Justin has been talking about receiving a bad grade and has explored his feelings and then the dialogue stops, the helper might ask Justin what a bad grade means for the future. Other possible open questions and probes might be to ask Justin to compare how this situation relates to past experiences with grades or how this grade affects his relationship with his parents. These open questions and probes could help Justin talk more completely about other important aspects of the problem. I like comparing problems to a ball of yarn; with each open question or probe, helpers encourage clients to take out a bit of the yarn and talk about it. When one piece is explored thoroughly, helpers gently guide clients to pull out another piece of the yarn (i.e., talk about another aspect of the problem).
In addition, open questions and probes about examples are helpful when clients are talking generally and vaguely about problems. Asking for specific examples can give helpers a clearer picture of what the client is talking about (e.g., “Tell me about a specific time when you felt distant from your father”).
HOW TO USE OPEN QUESTIONS AND PROBES ABOUT THOUGHTS There are several ways that open questions and probes can be used. For example:
“Tell me about the last time you thought x.” “Tell me more about x.” “What’s that like for you to think x?” “What do you think about that?” “What do you mean by that?” “What does x mean?” “Can you give me an example of that?” “What comes to mind when you think about x?”
Appropriate attending behaviors are important when delivering open questions and probes. If the tone of voice is low and soft, the rate of speech is slow, and the open question and probe is phrased tentatively, the client is likely to perceive the helper as conveying concern and intimacy. Helpers should be supportive, nonjudgmental, and encouraging no matter what clients say because there are no right or wrong topics to explore and no right or wrong answers to questions.
Open questions and probes should be short and simple. Clients may have difficulty responding to lengthy or multiple questions because they might feel
confused. Multiple questions (“What did you do next, and what were you thinking, and what did you mean by that?”) can have a dampening effect on the interaction if clients do not know which question to respond to first or feel bombarded. Clients might ignore important questions if there are too many of them because they cannot respond to all of them. Helpers can come back later and ask other questions if they still seem relevant.
Thus, open questions and probes about thoughts are most effective when helpers focus on one part of the problem at a time. Clients cannot talk about everything at once and may have difficulty choosing a single topic, so it can be helpful for helpers to pick the most important or salient issue to focus on and return to others later. As with restatements, it is best to focus on the areas for which clients have the most energy or affect, or for what is at the “cutting edge” of a client’s awareness. For example, if Juan is talking about several different topics, the helper might ask Juan a question about the topic that seems most unresolved or pressing.
In addition, it is useful to keep the focus of the open question or probe on the client (“How did you feel about your mother’s behavior?”) rather than turning the attention to other people (“What did your mother do in that situation?”). Keeping the focus on the client helps the client explore what is going on inside him or her rather than deflecting the attention to other people. For example, if Jean often argues with her mother, the helper can ask about Jean’s thoughts (“What are your thoughts when your mother starts yelling at you?”) rather than asking Jean about her mother’s thoughts (“What do you think your mother would say about this?”). Although it could be helpful to understand more about the mother, she is not in the room, and the helper is likely to get a one-sided view of her. The person the helper is most likely to help is the client, so it is typically better to focus on the client.
It is also important to keep the client focused on current thoughts, although these current thoughts may be about past events. So rather than asking, “What did you think then?” the helper would ask, “What do you think now about what happened then?”
It is not necessary to ask open questions or probes if the client is exploring at a deep level. Rather than interrupting just to get a chance to say something, it is better to keep quiet and allow the client to keep talking and only ask questions when the client is stuck or needs guidance about what to explore further.
One particular kind of probe I like is “Tell me your memories about that.” This probe is particularly helpful when a client is describing a troubling current situation that you suspect might be influenced by past experiences. Thus, when Selina was talking about the effects of her father and stepmother breaking up, I asked about her memories of her mother and father’s divorce. Selina was able to talk about painful memories that obviously were still affecting her and influencing how she was dealing with the current situation.
Helpers generally also avoid “why” questions (e.g., “Why did you blow up at your boyfriend the other night?” “Why are you not able to study?”) in the exploration stage because they are difficult to answer and can make the client
defensive. As Nisbett and Wilson (1977) indicated, people rarely know why they do things. If they knew why they act as they do, they probably would not be talking to helpers. When someone asks why you did something, you might feel she or he is judging you and deriding you for not being able to handle the situation more effectively. Instead of “why” questions, helpers could use “what” or “how” questions (e.g., instead of “Why didn’t you study for your exam?” the helper could ask, “What was going on that kept you from studying?” “What was going through your mind when you were trying to study?” or “What is going on that makes it difficult for you to study?”). Why questions are more appropriate in the insight stage and are discussed in Chapter 13.
Finally, helpers should be aware of cultural differences in receptiveness to questions. D. W. Sue and Sue (1999) noted that people from some cultures may be uncomfortable when they are questioned or asked to initiate the dialogue (e.g., “What would you like to talk about today?”) because it may be disrespectful. In such cases, helpers may have to be more direct, either in educating the client about the helping process or in suggesting topics to discuss. Helpers cannot assume, however, that clients from other cultures will not like open questions or probes, but if they observe that clients seem uncomfortable with them, they can instead try restatements.
EXAMPLE OF OPEN QUESTIONS AND PROBES ABOUT THOUGHTS The following shows a helper using open questions and probes about thoughts (in italics) and probes (in italics) in a session:
Client: My younger sisters are fighting a lot with each other. They really get nasty and have been hurting each other. My youngest sister was caught stealing from a store recently. My parents aren’t doing anything about it, and my sisters are just going wild. I wish there was more I could do to help them. If I were still at home, they would listen to me. I think they don’t have anyone to turn to. My parents are divorcing, so they’re just not available to my sisters.
Helper: Tell me more about what it’s like for you not to be there. Client: On one hand, I’m delighted to be away from the mess. On the other
hand, I feel guilty, like I survived the Titanic crash and came out alive but they’re sinking.
Helper: What is it like when you are with your family? Client: My parents are still living together, but they fight all the time. Things
are pretty scary around the house because my parents get pretty violent with each other. I have to look out for my sisters. I am really more their parent than either of my parents are. I got to be pretty strong by having to fend for myself so much.
Helper: Give me a specific example of a time when you had to look after your sisters.
Client: Oh, yeah, just last night when I called home. My younger sister said that mom has started to throw dishes around and dad left the house in a
huff and they haven’t talked. No one even asks them about their schoolwork any more and they are running around wild. I don’t know what to do for them from here. (Client continues to explore.)