Why Do Therapists Ask Open-Ended Questions?

Woman in Therapy
Richard Clark / Getty Images

If you've ever been in therapy, you have probably noticed that your therapist asks a lot of vague questions. In fact, this has even become a source of humor in pop culture. Bob Newhart's famous question, "How did that make you feel?" has become a standard way to lampoon therapy. Open-ended questions are tools that are not only useful in therapy, they are also good ways to start conversations. Learn the value of these seemingly-vague kinds of questions.

The Difference Between Open-Ended and Closed-Ended Questions

Most therapists are trained to ask open-ended questions. Open-ended questions are ones that allow you to provide whatever amount of detail you want, rather than simply answering "yes" or "no." Open-ended questions encourage you to share relevant material about your life, your way of thinking, and your beliefs.

Consider the following sentences:

  1. Do you have a good relationship with your parents?
  2. Tell me about your relationship with your parents.

The material covered is identical, but the answers will likely be very different. The first question is a closed-ended question. The expected reply is "yes" or "no." If a therapist asks that question and gets one of those answers, the ball is back in the therapist's court to encourage a fuller response. With a close-ended question, a client may choose to say more, but often they do not.

There is another important difference between these two sentences. Number one is a leading question. It introduces the idea of "good" into the client's consciousness. This is not a particularly troubling example of a leading question, but consider a question like, "Did your father sexually abuse you?" Due to the fact that this question may prompt a certain answer, therapists generally avoid asking ones like that.

One pitfall to avoid is ensuring your open-ended question is actually closed-ended. Sometimes you craft a question that is complicated and seems to you to be open-ended, but in fact, can result in an answer that is basically yes-or-no.

Types of Open-Ended Questions

When developing open-ended questions, they are likely to feature the typical "who, what, where, when, why, and how" used in good journalism. But these questions draw out different kinds of responses that can be useful for a therapist.

Questions that focus on "how" often bring out answers that discuss the person's feelings and emotions or the processes they go through. Questions focusing on "what" will lead the person to talk about facts. "When" and "where" will lead to answers about the time, sequence, and place of events. "Who" can elicit insights into relationships. Questions beginning with "why" will bring out reasons. However, you must be careful as asking "why" can seem accusatory and could lead to defensiveness and justification. The proper tone of voice is important for a "why" question to be received as non-judgmental.

Questions Therapists May Ask at Your First Appointment

Every therapist is different, as are the approaches they may use. However, these are some common questions that therapists may ask at your first appointment. These include:

  • What brings you here today?
  • Have you seen a counselor/therapist/psychologist before?
  • What do you see as being the biggest problem?
  • How does that problem make you feel?
  • What makes the problem better?
  • What positive changes would you like to see happen in your life?
  • In general, how would you say your mood is?
  • What sort of things are you expecting from therapy?
  • What sort of things would it take to make you happier or more at peace?

Using Open-Ended Questions in Daily Life

The principle of asking open-ended questions versus close-ended questions can be used by anyone trying to get a conversation going. For instance, if you are talking with someone you don't know very well, ask them open-ended questions. In fact, if you think of a question with a "yes or no" answer, see if you can change it into a more open-ended version and ask that instead. The conversation will likely move along more easily, and you will get to know that person on a deeper level.

A Word From Verywell

Open-ended questions are not meant to be vague, evasive, or annoying. Rather, they are your therapist's way of getting to know you, like what makes you tick, what you think, what bugs you, what you love, and how she or he can best help you.

Was this page helpful?