Using Questions in Counseling

 

Originally published in Pulpit Helps, December 2006.

One of the great teaching methods of Jesus Christ was to ask questions. He did not ask the questions to gain information but to help people learn and understand. For example, Matthew 16:13-16: "Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, Who do people say that the Son of Man is?' And they said, Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.' He said to them, But who do you say that I am?' Simon Peter answered, You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.'"

Observe in that exchange that history's greatest teacher and counselor asked questions that require more than just a simple yes or no answer. People had to think.

By the same token, Christian counselors can effectively employ appropriate questions in the counseling process. The temptation for most of us who counsel is to ask questions that can be answered "yes" or "no." This type of question is not very effective in counseling. However, open-ended questions that require a more substantial response can provide insight and understanding.

Another mistake is to do too much work for a counselee. We can try to tell a person how they ought to feel, think, or behave, but that will not be as effective as asking pertinent questions that force them to think. It is important to understand how a person is thinking about something before we can be a change agent in God's hand as we try to help them adjust their thoughts.

Counseling is not preaching. Counseling, by its very nature, is geared more toward a one-to-one connection. It is more personal, more involved, and more intimate than preaching, simply because we are getting to know in some detail a particular person. Counseling takes time and requires patience. Progress is most often measured in terms of a series of small steps instead of one giant leap.

If we are interacting with a counselee about a recent behavioral issue, we could ask, "Why did you do that?" That is a logical question but a more effective one might be, "What were you thinking or feeling just before you did that?" We might even inquire, "How did you feel afterwards?" A counselor may not agree with a counselee's values or actions, but if he can ask penetrating questions and listen actively, the entire counseling process will likely be much more effective. Listening is extremely important for a counselor, but we must ask the right questions in order to gain insight.

A counselor may know the answer to something before even asking the question. Following Jesus' method, the question in this case would not be to gain information but to help both counselor and counselee gain insight and understanding.

Leading questions are seldom good questions to use in counseling. For example, "Did you feel guilty after you lied?" A counselee may acquiesce to the counselor's lead and simply agree. He or she may just say yes or no. Either way, the process of counseling is thwarted.

Instruction and teaching are important elements in counseling, but in order to better understand a person and his or her problems, good questions timely asked can open the doors to gaining better understanding of the issues.

James Rudy Gray is certified as a professional counselor by the National Board for Certified Counselors, and is a member of the American Association of Christian Counselors. He serves as the editor of The Baptist Courier, the official newspaper of the South Carolina Baptist Convention.

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