Counseling Skills 101: Asking Questions

Hello! It’s Thursday! This makes me happy because it’s one day closer to Friday and I think Fridays are my favorite days. You’re busy all day and then you a have this glorious reward called The Weekend which comes right after. I’m all about delayed gratification, so that’s probably why I’m a big fan of Friday.

Glad I had that really unimportant ramble, it must be the coffee that’s back in my diet. Glory, glory, hallelujah. Let’s talk about counseling skills again. You all were quite enthusiastic about the giving advice post, so I thought I’d throw another one at ya like spaghetti and see if it sticks.

Asking Questions

We have to ask questions to find out information about other people, duh. I’m sure we’re all quite good at asking questions.

“Where were you last night?” said every mother ever.

“Why did you let the dog poop on the rug?” said every new dog owner.

“Do you smell that?” said every boy ever.

“Who is your daddy and what does he do?” said Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“What’s my name?!” said DMX.

“When is it?” said me every day because I’m losing my mind and I can’t remember anything.

“How are you?” said any decent human being.

I know I didn’t have to give you examples of questions, but I felt like it, so there.

Anyway, counselors have two bags of questions. We have the open bag and we have the closed bag. The open bag is like our carry-on luggage. We bring that bag everywhere we go. If we’re going to the bathroom, we bring our open bag. Seat 36F? Yep, it’s coming there, too.

The closed bag is the one we either check or put in the overhead bin. We use it and it’s definitely important because I’ve got all of my clothes for the next 10 days in there! But it’s not something we need to keep readily available.

The Open Bag

I’m sure the majority of you have extrapolated that the open bag is the open questions bag. I keep all of my most needed open questions readily available in a counseling session.

  • How?
  • What?

There are only two questions. That’s why it’s so light and I can just roll it under the seat in front of me!

You see, open questions get juicier answers. You can’t answer a question with “Yes,” or “No,” when someone asks an open question. The question itself says, “I really want to know, tell me the whole story…”

Asking “What?” and “How?” sends a message that you care about the answer because you are bothering to ask something that could take anywhere from 3 seconds to 10 minutes + to get the information.

However, it’s important to note that you can completely negate the positivity of asking an open question with your tone. If you say, “What is your problem!?” like you’re about to slap the other person to their senses, then you’re going to get a hostile and defensive response. If you say earnestly, “What is your problem?” then you’re probably going to get an earnest response in return. Of course, someone could just reply with, “Oh, nothing!” and then you can follow-up with a statement like, “Well, you appear to be feeling ______, so I thought I would ask.”

Open questions are door openers. They get the party started.

The Closed Bag

I bring out the closed bag only when I need to do so. I really try to pack my carry-on with all the things I’ll need because it’s a pain to go and try to find what I need in the overhead bin. That’s how closed questions are in counseling – and in life. If you want to have honest and real conversations where you learn something about someone else or something else, you’re not going to get the meaty answers with closed questions. It’ll probably take you 20 closed questions to get the substance you could get with one open question.

There are two types of closed questions I sometimes don’t pack on my trip at all.

  • Why?
  • Do you?

“Why?” is sort of self-explanatory. Think of every kid that’s ever asked “Why?” 40 thousand times. You wanted to press the mute button on their tiny mouth, didn’t you? “Why?” is so annoying. It sends the message that you aren’t capable of empathizing with someone else and therefore what they did/said is stupid or nonsensical. “Why?” doesn’t create connections. While it most often elicits a longer response, you could have gotten to the same place with a “How?” question.

“Do you?” implies that you probably know more than the person you are talking with. Just think about it. “Do you?” is usually a suggestion in disguise. Sometimes it’s inquisitive, like, “Do you have any more toilet paper?” which is an exception. Most of the time it’s like, “Do you think your mother is the problem?”

Spoiler alert! Someone is hypothesizing that your mother is the problem and it’s not the person who is talking about their own mother, it’s you. You are implying that it’s your friend’s mother (or whomever) that is the problem. Even if it is, you are not an expert in this person’s life. They know their mother better than you do.

“Do you?” questions really shouldn’t be asked at all because they are sneaky and they don’t provide information, they usually take it away.

Pack Your Luggage!

Always bring along all these questions, but depending upon what situation you’re in, you may want to redistribute your luggage. At work, sometimes it’s better to have more closed questions.

“Did you see the TPS report?”

“Why are you late?”

Short. To the point. No time for extra chitter-chatter. No, I did not see the TPS report. I was late because of traffic. Boom. Done.

When you’re getting to know someone, especially if you’re dating or in a romantic relationship, ask open questions!

“What is your goal for the next 20 years?”

“How do you want to get there?”

“What can I do to help you get through this?”

“How can we solve this problem together?”

You get my drift. Ask open questions if you want to learn about others and let them know you’re ready to hear their story. Plain and simple.



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Posted on by Jen Bingaman, M.A. LMHCA Posted in Counseling Skills, Individual, Mind
Jen Bingaman, M.A. LMHCA

About Jen Bingaman, M.A. LMHCA

Hi, I’m Jen. I’m a mental health counselor newly residing in Seattle, Washington. I strongly believe in the mind-body connection as the cornerstone of my professional ideology, along with the healing possibilities of puppies, a good glass of red wine, the smell of a new book, and the importance of travel.