It’s kind of a paradox that most people come to us as therapists and coaches for answers, but our real job is to ask questions. I’ve just read an inspiring book about asking questions, with a very touching story to illustrate their importance.
Clients want to know answers to life’s difficult questions – how to handle life changes. Why is my partner being so impossible? What can I do about chronic pain? How should my wife and I navigate these parenting problems? When will we get past this betrayal? How can I possibly juggle my career with all the needs of my spouse, children, and aging parents?
Clients want answers, and yet, questions are the foundation of what therapists and coaches offer their clients.
In every session you balance giving feedback and insights vs. asking perspective-shifting questions. Those questions are what prompt clients to find their own answers, and often they can be more important than our suggestions.
Here’s an example of the transformative power of the right questions. It’s from a colleague of mine, Dr. Bonnie Bernell, who helped Linda and Dan change their relationship with a few targeted questions.
Linda and Dan came to my office full of pain and grief at what they imagined was the last step, the last possibility before ending their relationship. After thirty years together, they were having a version of a fight that no therapist had been able to impact, and they had tried many therapists. Linda said Dan had no respect for her and didn’t hear or care what she said. Her response was to keep talking to him to get what she needed. Dan said Linda was controlling and demeaning; his response was to withdraw. A frequent focus of their fights was a grungy pair of shoes that Dan always wore, even on celebratory occasions.
Rather than repeat other efforts to help them, from skilled, well-meaning, and frequently excellent therapists who I know had helped many other similar clients, my approach was to try another way, to ask a specific question that might get each of them to look at what was happening in a different way.
My questions to each of them were about “treasures that matter.” Are these shoes treasures to you? What criteria do you use to put something on a treasure list or call something a treasure? Does something that is treasured need to be positive? Can something negative and possibly embarrassing be a treasure, too?
These questions can be annoying, disorienting, even destabilizing to one partner, and seemingly easier for the other. However, what happened was helping each of them be curious; a space opened between them that shifted the conversation.
Obviously, to Linda the shoes were not treasures. Of course, to Dan, the shoes were something he wanted to wear often. To Linda, those shoes would never be positive, she said.
And then, to the question that made a difference for Linda and Dan: Dan, whose instinct was to shut down, had yet to have a forum to look at why these seemingly negative, even embarrassing, shoes were a treasure to him. He told the following story.
Dan came from a low-income family. The first pair of new shoes he had ever owned was given to him by his parents when he graduated from high school. He went to a military academy; at one of the graduation events, he got special permission to wear those shoes that were somewhat worn.
At his marriage to Linda, he insisted on wearing those now-very-tired-looking shoes. That began a decades-long battle between Dan and Linda over when and where he would wear those increasingly dreadful shoes. When each of their sons was born, Dan wore those shoes to the hospital to greet the new child. Dan insisted on wearing those shoes when each of his children got married.
They had couples therapy over those grungy shoes. Linda felt Dan was uncaring to her when he would not stop wearing those shoes on important occasions. Dan felt Linda was mean and judgmental. More therapy. All to no avail. When Dan was allowed to tell his story about those shoes, he expressed thoughts he did not even realize he had.
Those grungy shoes were a meaningful expression of support from his parents, shoes that made him remember his parents’ sacrifices and their expression of love for him. Until that moment, he had never been able to tell his wife the power of those shoes. By the end of his story, Linda was in tears. For decades the couple had fought. Answering just a few targeted questions changed everything.
Bonnie Bernell, Ed.D. and Cheryl Svensson, Ph.D. have written a new book Uncovering Treasures That Matter: A Therapist’s Guide to Asking the Right Questions. It includes questions for writing on 50 different themes, a veritable “treasure trove” of questions that will help deepen or broaden or create inspiration to help liberate the struggle.
Use the comment section below to write about some questions that have worked well in your practice. Or tell us a story like Bonnie’s.