Why Do Therapists Ask Open-Ended Questions?

Examples of Introductory Questions a Therapist Might Ask

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If you've ever been in therapy, you have probably noticed that your therapist asked a lot of vague questions. This is so characteristic of therapy, in fact, that it has become a source of humor in pop culture. Bob Newhart's famous question, "How did that make you feel?", has become a standard way to lampoon therapy.

Why do therapists do this? Is there really some value in being vague and evasive?

The Difference Between Open-Ended and Closed-Ended Questions

Most therapists are trained to ask open-ended questions.

Open-ended questions are ones that allow you to answer in whatever amount of detail you want, rather than simply answering "yes" or "no." This is a way to allow you to talk about whatever is important and to encourage you to share relevant material about your life, thinking and beliefs. Consider the following sentences:

1. Did you have a good relationship with your parents?

2. Tell me about your relationship with your parents.

The material covered is identical, but the answers will likely be very different. The first question is a closed-ended question. The expected reply is "yes" or "no." If a therapist asks that question and gets one of those answers, then the ball is back in the therapist's court to encourage a fuller response. A client may choose to say more, but often they do not.

Number two already encourages the client to explore the issue. A therapist gets more information this way and the session seems less like an interrogation.

There is another important difference between these two sentences. Number one is a leading question. It introduces the idea of "good" into the client's consciousness. This is not a particularly troubling example of a leading question, but consider a question like, "Did your father sexually abuse you?" Therapists generally avoid asking questions like this.

This principle can be used by anyone trying to get a conversation going. If you are talking with someone you don't know very well, ask them open-ended questions. If you think of a question with a "yes or no" answer, see if you can change it into a more open-ended version and ask that instead. The conversation will likely move along more easily.

Questions Therapists May Ask At Your First Appointment

Every therapist is different, as are the approaches your therapist may use. However, these are some common questions that therapist may ask at your first appointment.

  • What brings you here?
  • Have you seen a counselor/therapist/psychologist before?
  • What do you see as being the biggest problem?
  • How does that problem make you feel?
  • What makes the problem better?
  • What positive changes would you like to see happen in your life?
  • In general, how would you say your mood is?
  • What sort of things are you expecting from therapy?
  • What sort of things would it take to make you happier or more at peace?

Remember, Your Therapist Is Here to Help You

Open-ended questions are your therapist's way of getting to know you, what makes you tick, what you think, what bugs you, what you love and how she can best help you.



O'Grady, D., "Questions Counselors Ask." Dr. Dennis O'Grady (2014).

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