Asking the right thing, at the right time, and listening to that answer is one of the most important skills any of us can ever learn. But it’s an art, not a science so here I’ve tried to look at how we can ask better questions which will in turn help therapists (and anyone trying to support a friend or family member) to create meaningful, constructive and positive conversations.
Most of us have heard of Socrates, he was a philosopher, born in Ancient Greece about 470BC. A lot of people think of him as the father of Western Philosophy.
Many of us will have heard of Socratic questioning too, as a way of asking ourselves about things in a structured way, so that it narrows our focus in (eventually), towards the truth. It’s used in order to gain further insight into a topic, often when we already know a little bit about it.
But when is Socratic questioning useful and why is is used so often in therapy?
In the therapy world, it’s important for a client to understand what they’re going through themselves. So, Socratic questioning it is a way we can guide our client’s discovery of their own difficulties. It’s not trick questioning where we lead the client to discover what we always knew, it’s a joint discovery where the new information provides fresh perspectives on problems and solutions.
It can be defined by:
- Asking the client questions about something they already know something about
- Drawing focus towards relevant topics but topics which may have not previously been considered
- Moving from a concrete issue toward a more abstract view of it
- Encouraging the client, at the end, to use this new information to come to a new perspective in the issue which can help them move forward
A great example of some Socratic questioning in therapy is provided below (taken from Christine Padesky’s speech to the European Congress of Behavioural and Cognitive Therapies in London in 1993):
Client: I’m a failure in every way
Therapist: You look defeated when you said that. Do you feel defeated?
C: Yes, I’m no good
T: What do you mean by that?
C: I’ve completely screwed up my life, I haven’t done anything right
T: Has something happened which led you to this conclusion or have you felt like this for a long time?
C: I think I see myself more clearly now
T: So this is a change in your thinking?
C: Yes. I went to that family reunion and saw my bother and his kids and wife. They all looked so happy. And idealised that my family’s not happy. And it’s all my fault because of my depression. If they were in my brother’s family they would be better off.
T: And so, because you care about your family you then decided you were a complete failure, that you’ve let them down.
C: Thats right.
T: You also indicated that this was a change in your thinking. You’ve been depressed many times. And you’ve seen your brother and his family many times. How did you think about this in the past?
C: I guess I always used to think I was ok because I tried to be a good father and husband, but I see now that trying isn’t enough.
T: Why is trying not enough?
C: Because no matter how hard I try, they are still not as happy as they’d be with someone else
T: Is that what they say to you?
C: No, but I can see how happy my brother’s kids are.
T: And you’d like your kids to be happier…
T: What things could you do differently if you were less depressed or a better father in your own eyes?
C: I think I’d like to talk to them more, laugh more, encourage them like I see my brother do
T: Are these things you could do even when you are depressed?
C: Well, yes, I think I could
T: Would that feel better to you- trying some new things as a father, rather than simply doing the same things?
C: Yes, I think it would. but I’m not sure it would be enough if I’m still depressed.
T: How would you find that out?
C: I guess I could try it out for a week or so.
I’ve also come across a few really powerful therapeutic questions that my colleagues in the therapy world use regularly to help clients explore the meaning of what they’re going through. I’ve listed a few of the best therapeutic questions below :
- If I could wave a magic wand and you were happier, what would you be doing differently?
- If the person you loved most in the world was thinking the way you are what would you say to them?
- In five years from now will this situation matter?
- What is the worst that can happen in this situation? (don’t use this as a stock phrase, but ask this genuinely, out of interest)
- What would your best friend say to you right now?
- What does this say about you?
- What does this say about others?
- What does this say about the world we live in?
- If someone observed you for a week, without taking to you, what would they say you cared about most in the world?
- What would they be surprised you care about?
Knowing the right question to ask at the right time takes skill and experience, but I believe the two most important aspects of these questions, are to ask these questions without expecting a certain answer and then to listen and react to the answer itself, not some pre-prepared structure. Then we are truly working empirically, as scientists, testing hypotheses and evaluating the results, but together with our clients.
www.happii.uk is a website providing information about mental health and wellbeing. Happii.uk is provided by Anna Batho, a therapist working in High Wycombe and providing therapy in Amersham and the wider Buckinghamshire (Bucks) region.
You can contact her here.