Why Do Therapists Ask Open-Ended Questions?

Woman in Therapy
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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.

But open-ended questions are not only a useful tool in therapy, they are also a good way to start conversations in day-to-day life. Learn the value of these seemingly vague kinds of questions.

Open-Ended vs. 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 closed-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 when 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

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

  • Who: Elicits insight into relationships
  • What: Most often leads to facts
  • Where: Enables discussion about the place the environment took place
  • When: Brings about the timing of a problem, including what happened immediately before and after it
  • Why: Most often brings about reasons
  • How: Enables a person to talk about feelings and/or processes

The proper tone of voice is important when asking any question, specifically when asking "why" questions. Starting a question with "why" can seem accusatory and cause a person to respond defensively. Using a non-judgemental tone can prevent this response.

9 Questions Therapists Commonly Ask

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

  • What brings you here today?
  • Have you ever seen a counselor/therapist/psychologist before?
  • What do you see as being the biggest problem?
  • How does this 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 describe your mood?
  • What do you expect from the counseling process?
  • What would it take for you to feel happier or more at peace?

Using Open-Ended Questions in Daily Life

Therapists aren't the only ones who benefit from using open-ended questions. Anyone can use open-ended questions in their daily life. The truth is, you're much more likely to get a conversation flowing and connect with people when you ask open-ended versus close-ended questions.

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.

Close-Ended Questions
  • How are you?

  • Do you like your job?

  • Are you an only child?

  • Did you like living there?

Open-Ended Questions
  • What's on your mind?

  • Why did you choose this field?

  • Tell me about your family.

  • What was it like living there?

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 they can best help you.

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4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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