Probing skills: unhelpful questions

There are many types of question that can be unhelpful:

‘Why’ questions can put pressure on clients to justify or find reasons or causes for their behaviour. This can fix the client in the here-and-now or the past, rather than helping them to move forward and see new possibilities. They can also put across a suggestion of criticism (for example, “Why did you do that?”) Understanding why they behave, think or feel as they do, does not lead to action. Clients often lack the knowledge and skills necessary to act differently.

Closed questions invite a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.

They do not promote further exploration at all, and repeated use can lead to a vicious circle where the client says less and less and to keep the conversation going, you end up asking more and more closed questions. For example:

Instructor: Have you told your husband about your intention to join your local gym?
Client: Well, not yet
Instructor: Are you going to?
Client: Yes, I’m just waiting for the right time
Instructor: Do you think he’ll mind?
Client: Probably not
Instructor: Will he come with you?
Client: Doubt it

The client faces a barrage of questions, and is not encouraged to explore any issues that arise or add further information. You plough straight on with what concerns you, following your own agenda.

There will be times, however, when you want to establish certain facts, to clarify a point about something you are not clear about, or to check information. In these instances, closed questions may be a quick and efficient means of eliciting the required response.

Either/or questions are generally closed and are sometimes leading questions. They present the client with only two options, when there may well be more – restricting the client’s exploration with their issues and concerns. If the options come from your frame of reference and not the clients, the question may also be leading. For example:

Instructor: Will you ring the physio yourself, or do you want me to call and book the appointment?
Client: Neither! I don’t want to go and see the physio

Leading questions send amessage to the client, either openly or hidden, that a certain answer is expected, or there are beliefs, feelings and values that they should hold or experience. For example:

Client: I’m enjoying the exercise programme. It’s made me feel a whole lot better. I’m even considering looking at other areas of my life that can be improved?
Instructor: Are you saying you want to give up smoking?


Client: I’m finding it really hard to cut down on all the rubbish I eat
Instructor: Don’t you think most people feel like this and end up realising how important their diet is?

Your message is conveyed by not only the words you say, but also by the accompanying non-verbal behaviour (such as a shocked expression or incredulous tone of voice). Leading questions attempt to control by suggesting a particular direction for the conversation, and by restricting the exploration to what you see as appropriate.

Multiple questions involve asking several questions at the same time. Doing this is uneconomical because they can overwhelm or confuse the client. Clients often respond by asking questions or by asking for clarification. For example:

Client: I think that I want to eat better. I’m fed up with gorging myself on junk food all the time. I don’t even think it tastes that nice to be honest … and I always seem to feel bloated and even queasy afterwards
Instructor: Do you want to simply eat better, or do you have a specific purpose, such as losing weight? Do you also want to be more physically active?
Client: Erm …


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