Why Are Therapist Questions Open-Ended?

Woman in Therapy
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Therapist questions often focus on helping people talk about their experiences and problems and building rapport with a mental health professional. Open-ended questions for counseling allow people to express their feelings and share thoughts they might not otherwise explore.

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.

This article explores some common types of therapist questions and the value of these seemingly vague kinds of questions. It also discusses open-ended questions for counseling that you might encounter during your sessions and how such questions can also be used in everyday conversations.

10 Common Therapist Questions

Every therapist is different, as are the approaches they may use. These are some common open-ended questions for counseling that your therapist 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?
  • Why does that make you feel angry?
  • 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?

Open-Ended vs. Closed-Ended Therapist 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 for Counseling

Open-ended therapist 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.

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 therapist 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. Your responses will likely offer them more helpful information than if they were to simply ask "yes" or "no" questions.

Consider asking open-ended questions in your day-to-day to prompt the beginning of longer and more insightful conversations, and see how they affect your own relationships.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are good questions for the counselor?

    It's a good idea to ask your therapist a number of questions before you start therapy. Examples include:

    • What are your strengths and limitations?
    • What is your treatment philosophy?
    • What type of training and experience do you have?
    • Have you been in therapy yourself?
    • What lead you to become a counselor?
    • What qualities make you a good counselor?
  • Why do counselors use open-ended questions?

    Open-ended questions are designed to help clients reflect on their feelings and elaborate on their experiences. Such questions encourage people to share more details about their lives, relationships, opinions, and problems.

  • What are 10 open-ended questions?

    Ten examples of open-ended questions you could ask in everyday conversations include:

    1. What are some plans you have for the future?
    2. Where is your favorite place to visit?
    3. What are your plans for the weekend?
    4. Where did you grow up?
    5. What's something that you really enjoy doing?
    6. Who do you look up to in your life?
    7. What's something you look forward to each day?
    8. What's the biggest goal you want to accomplish this year?
    9. What motivates you?
    10. How do you like to celebrate special occasions?
  • What are some open-ended questions to start a conversation?

    Small talk topics that make great conversation starters include:

    • What's a good book you've read lately?
    • What's the best gift you've ever gotten?
    • Do enjoy what you do?
    • Are you working on any exciting projects?
    • What's the best thing that's happened to you this week?
    • What are your plans for the weekend?
3 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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  2. Souders B. PostivePsychology.com. Therapy questions every therapist should be asking. March 18, 2020

  3. Nemec PB, Spagnolo AC, Soydan AS. Can you hear me now? Teaching listening skills. Psychiatr Rehabil J. 2017;40(4):415-417. doi:10.1037/prj0000287