“So John, what ideas have been important to you these last few years?”
My first response was, “What a great question!” This was asked of me by my old friend Hektor when we recently reconnected after almost 20 years. I was stopped a bit short by the question and its depth, and I continue to reflect on it – to me, this is a sign of a good question.
I met Hektor in 2000, when I was volunteering in Tirana, Albania. He was my interpreter as I worked with Albanian youth in prison for Hakmarrja – an honour-based, culturally influenced feud system/social code that requires someone to take another’s life in order to right an earlier wrong. These are revenge killings that are part of Gjakmarrja or the Albanian Blood Feud.
Hektor and I worked together closely in this intense environment and shared many learning experiences as a result. We got to know each other well, but lost touch and only recently reunited on my return visit to Albania this past summer. After a 19-year relational gap, Hektor’s question sought to meet me deeply, to get to know me again, to understand what is important to me now and what has been influencing me – his question reconnected us.
Why Questions Are Important
There is power and influence in a good question, and they do so much more than generate information. They will:
- Influence (e.g., away from problems to solutions)
- Uncover strengths, abilities, learnings, values (i.e., what is important to the person)
- Build up preferred selves/stories
Questions also have the power to judge, tear down, silence, and isolate. For example:
- What’s wrong with you?
- What were you thinking?
- Why did you do that?
What I love about questions is the freedom they provide to all involved. As a counsellor, I do not need to be the “expert” (on the person or the problem). Rather, I need to have questions that are well thought out, well timed, and bring out the experience of the person I am speaking with. There is an art to questions. Honing this art takes critical reflection and brave experimentation.
Question Our Questions!
There is power in being the one who asks the questions. We need to be aware of this and critically reflect upon it:
- What information are we seeking?
- What is our motivation for asking?
- What impact does this question have on the person?
- Why is this information important within the context?
A couple years ago, a therapy client I was seeing unknowingly helped me rethink the information I seek as part of my initial intake and assessment. I had a good first meeting with the person and, after the session, began writing up my notes. I looked at what they had filled out on my standard intake form. Next to the age category, they left a comment: “Is this really necessary?” After an initial chuckle, I began to reflect more critically on this and asked myself:
- “Why do I need to know this?”
- “How will this information shape and influence how I work with this person?”
As I reflected on these questions, I realized that I asked about age as part of my intake simply because I had seen it done on other intake forms. Yet, this question created a potential obstacle for a client.
There is power and influence in a good question, and they do so much more than generate information.
As a counsellor, I want to do my best to connect with those I work with. In doing so, I need to consider what I am doing that may be a barrier to others. This client’s comment was a powerful gift to me – it caused me to rethink what information I need to best work with people. I have since removed the age category (and also the gender category). People may choose to share this information, but it is certainly not needed for me to be the best resource to them.
Questions can be habit-forming. We tend to ask the same things over and over again without even realizing it.
Think, reflect, and try something different – be intentional with your questions.
Reflect on How You Ask Questions
- What are you seeking to do with your question?
- How effective is the question you are asking?
- Is there another/better way of asking?
Being a parent has taught me the importance of reflecting on my questions. In the past, I would seek to connect with my kids after school by asking the typical question, “How was your day?” This would solicit the typical response: “Fine.” Well, “Fine” tells me nothing about their day, nor does it encourage further conversation. I realized that if I wanted to connect with my kids, I needed another approach. So, I started to experiment with questions like:
What was the worst part of your day?
What was the best part of your day?
These, I discovered, are higher-yield, higher-quality questions. I was able to gather more information and get the conversation flowing, which allowed me to weave in additional questions. These questions gave me more and better information about what was going on in my children’s lives and helped build our sense of shared connection. These questions say: “You matter to me. I love you and want to know about you. I care and am interested in both the ‘good’ and the ‘bad.’”
Pay attention to questions, your intention for asking, and their impact.
Collect Effective Questions
During a recent workshop I was facilitating, a participant remarked, “You ask some really good questions.” Yes, I do. And…it has taken a long time to develop my fluency and repertoire. For the past 10+ years, I have been actively reflecting on and gathering questions. I literally write them down.
Some of my favourites are:
- Before I start to ask you questions, do you have any questions for me – about who I am, how I may work with you, or whatever?
- What would you like me to know about you?
- How would your _______________ (e.g., best friend, parent, partner, colleague, dog, etc.) describe what they value in you?
- I’ve been asking you a lot of questions. Is there something I didn’t ask that you wish I did?
- Do you have a name for this experience?
- What does this say about you that you accomplished this? (I.e., digging deeper at qualities, skills, and abilities)
We are surrounded by questions every day – they are either asked of us, or we ask questions of others. Pay attention to questions, your intention for asking, and their impact. Steal those that work, adjust those that have potential, and discard those that don’t.
Curiosity is a cornerstone of counselling and good questions are at the heart of it. But, good questions do not happen by accident in the counselling room. They are equal parts curiosity, diligence, and artistry. Curiosity is about being nonjudgemental, inquisitive, and caring, while diligence is about being mindful, committed, and intentional. Artistry is about time investment, creativity, and practice.
So, what ideas have been important to me these last few years?
Well, I love thinking about questions.
Ironically, it was Hektor’s high-quality question that prompted this insight (and this article).
So, to my old friend Hektor: Thank you! Your question reconnected us, allowed me to share something of myself with you, and has pressed me into deeper reflection. Also, you can consider yourself on notice that this is one question I’m boldly and brazenly stealing to add to my repertoire – I plan to use it often.
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