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Open-ended Questions

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Updated April 23, 2014

If you've ever been in therapy, you have probably noticed that your therapist asked a lot of vague, open-ended 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?

Most therapists are trained to ask open-ended questions. This is a way to allow the client to talk about whatever is important to them, and to encourage them to share important material. 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 likely answers are very different. Number one 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 chose 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 who you don't know very well, ask them open-ended questions. If you think of a "yes or no" question, see if you can change it into a more open-ended version. Ask the open-ended version. The conversation will likely move more easily.

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