Closed questions can be supportive for clients

Judicious use of open & closed questions can empower clients. Restricting the range of responses when some are inappropriate or unavailable demands more of the therapist, but can be more supportive for the client.

One benefit of speaking slowly is that you get to think about how you frame your questions. The considered use of open & closed questions is a therapeutic skill often mentioned in workshops and textbooks but neglected in practice.

Open questions can be used for initial information gathering (“Tell me about your childhood”) and closed questions used to clarify the information given (“Were you abused as a child?”).

Closed questions restrict choice of response. They allow only a handful of responses (eg: yes or no) without stepping outwith the frame of the question (“I don’t feel comfortable talking about that”). Many clients are insufficiently assertive to sidestep the question and may feel pressured into premature disclosure of information (or lying) by closed questions.

Some may feel “closed questions bad, open questions good”. They strive to use only open questions in order not to restrict or pressure their clients. While the intention may be honourable, the effect is to abdicate responsibility for offering appropriate choice between responses.

Closed questions offer the opportunity to free clients from unnecessary and unavailable choices. Consider the distinction between:

  • when would you like our next appointment to be?
  • in how many weeks time should we meet again?
  • would you prefer to meet on the 12th or the 17th?

If you really want to know that the client would prefer a Saturday morning, even though you only work Monday to Friday, ask the first question. If only the 12th and 17th are practical for you, the first two questions set your client up for frustration (“next week, please” “sorry, I’m not available until the following week”).

Open questions should be used when any response is permissible. When the range of useful responses is more limited, an appropriately framed closed question supports rather than restricts the client.

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