Questions I Ask In Counseling
“Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.” – Voltaire
The Nature of a Question
I’m going to share some of the most profound questions I’ve ever discovered. I use all of them (or some variation) in counseling sessions on a daily basis. A well-timed question is incredibly powerful. Accurate questions can instantly destroy entire belief systems. As such, they are powerful and should be used with care and intention. Before we dive into the questions themselves let’s take a brief look at the nature of a question.
A question is not a simple thing. It reveals a vulnerability. It tells the listener you don’t know something. It lets the other person know you don’t have a solid understanding of a topic. It tells the other person that you trust them for a reliable and trustworthy answer – after all, you’re posing your question to them. It also makes you vulnerable to manipulation.
But perhaps the most powerful feature of asking a question – really asking a question – is that you have to want to know the answer, no matter where that answer may take you. You know the answer will require you to do something, you just don’t know what. Because of this, there is always a level of organically generated fear inherent in a question. You may have tentatively presented a question to a parent/teacher/friend/professor in the past, only to be pulverized by the response. You think to yourself, “Well, that didn’t go well at all! That’s the last time I’ll do that!” It’s a common experience expressed by hundreds of people I’ve worked with. And because of that fear, meaningful questions are rare.
There are two ways to answer deep, meaningful questions: you can answer them honestly, or you can lie to yourself. But we both know which way is most helpful. Now that we understand the nature of questions, let’s take a look at some good ones.
What is life all about for you?
This question is so all-encompassing that the answer is oftentimes assumed. Many people never bother to ask it. For some people it’s excitement. For some it’s being happy. For some it’s giving back. For some it’s making as much money as they can. For some it’s respect. For others it’s making a difference. Finding out what life is all about for you can unlock why you do pretty much everything.
What do you think I think of you?
This is a frightening question and usually takes the listener by surprise. Few have the courage to answer honestly. It lets the other person know how (and in what ways) they are being perceived. It can be scary, but it’s good to know what other people think of you because it gives you a more well-rounded view of yourself.
If you weren’t so scared, what would you do?
Many people will immediately reject the idea that they’re refusing to do something because they’re scared. It’s a natural defense mechanism. Being scared means being uncertain and different people can withstand different levels of uncertainty. If people struggle finding the answer to this question, I sometimes ask a similar question: “What would your 90-yr old self tell you to do?”
What do you want your life to look like in 3-5 years?
Most people overestimate what they can accomplish in 3-5 months, and underestimate what they can accomplish in 3-5 years. You can COMPLETELY remake yourself in 3-5 years: You can change career fields. You can stop lying all the time. You can stop wasting endless hours of your life looking at pornography. You can stop smoking. You can stop blaming the problems in your life on everyone else. You can do a lot in 3-5 years.
What’s wrong with that idea?
This is a good question to ask others or yourself. As soon as your “good idea” is fully developed, a good thing to do is to immediately try to destroy your idea. This sounds counterintuitive, but ideas are powerful things so it’s good to know if the idea is worth keeping. Good ideas can withstand harsh scrutiny, bad ideas can’t. It’s good to be hard on your ideas because the world won’t hesitate to destroy them.
Is this a want or a need?
This question can help unlock a complex issue: why do some people make changes while others don’t? Wants don’t get met all the time, needs do. What you think you need, you have. When a want becomes a need, change happens quickly. So if you want to make a change in your life you’ve always wanted to make, mentally move it into the needs category and the change will happen.
What story are you telling yourself?
Proverbs 23:7 says, “So as a man thinks in his heart, so is he.” We believe the stories we tell ourselves. Start paying attention to the stories you tell yourself:
“I hate math.”
“I’m terrible at communication.”
“I’m a bad cook.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever understand why I do that.”
These stories – and a thousand more just like them – form the foundation that beliefs systems are built on. In turn, beliefs dictate behaviors.
If you were someone’s role model, how would you act?
Thinking about this question can cause a great deal of regret. It plunges a person into humility. It’s okay. We all have things we wish we could’ve done differently. While this question may cause serious regret, turn your attention towards the future. This is a chance to become the person you failed to be in the past. We do certain things because we are a certain way. If you want to think of yourself as a certain type of person, do things commensurate with those ideals. And don’t be scared of humility! In my experience, many people have problems in their lives because they think too highly of themselves, not because they think too lowly of themselves.
What keeps you from doing what you know you need to do?
I read this question years ago, and since then it has been a great help to me. Its power lies in the fact that it asks a person to look deep within themselves and calls into question their underlying belief structures. It also paves the way for the next question on our list:
What are your values, and are you living true to them?
On the surface, many people seem to have similar values: kindness, respect, truthfulness, etc. But when you examine the details of their lives, inconsistencies begin to emerge. Your REAL values are the values you live out. As you examine how you behave, you might not like some of the things you see, so change them. Start becoming the man or woman you think you are. What if you stopped doing just ONE of the unhealthy things you’re currently doing, that you could stop doing? Don’t get me wrong, you may not have control of some of the dragons in your life – but you have control of a few. You get good at killing big dragons by slaying the small ones first.
When will you?
There’s rarely an opportune time to make change happen. The best way to demonstrate the utility of this question is with an example. Here’s a particularly poignant counseling session where I used this question in conjunction with another question listed above:
22-yr old female client: “I just can’t keep doing this. I know I need to break-up with him. The way he talks to me and treats me; it’s toxic.”
Me: When will you?
Client: “I don’t know… he’s working all this week. I think I’ll see him Sunday.”
Me: “Is he working right now?”
Client (shocked): “Um, nooo… I CAN’T DO IT RIGHT NOW!!”
Me: Why not? Did you think all we were going to do is sit in here and talk about problems!?
Client (still in disbelief): “Like, right now!? Right here in your office!?”
Client: “… I… …”
Me (after about 20 seconds): “Do you want to break up with him, or do you need to break up with him?”
Client (quiet for about 30 seconds and beginning to cry): “I need to…”
Me (pointing to her phone): “Then do it. You know I admire you. You know I respect you. It’s time for you to feel the same way about yourself that I do. Dial the number.”
That day, she broke up with her abusive boyfriend right there in my office. Months later she credited it as a major turning point in her therapy. Slay the dragons you know you should.
The Most Important Question
The final question is too great for me to fully understand. It occupies a category all its own. Perhaps its greatness lies in the pitiless truth of the answer it requires. Requires? Yes, requires. Everyone answers this question whether they want to or not. But how? What is the answer everyone gives to this question? Dear friend, it is your life! The way you live your life is the answer.
To consider this question is to consider the depth of your own existence: why are you here? This question possesses so much influential power that if you were to honestly try to answer it, a radically changed life would be the only possible result. I do not inflate or exaggerate that claim. Trying, with all of your effort, to answer this question would so radically change your life that it would become something utterly extraordinary. Here’s the question:
What is your individual responsibility to God?
A brilliant monk named Martin Luther posed that question hundreds of years ago. He was a genius. (He translated the entire bible from Latin into German in one month!) He was also terrified of going to hell when he died, which led him to develop this question. His attempt to answer his own question led him to many sleepless nights. He would lay awake at night on his bed weeping, “My sin! My sin! My sin!” Your relationship to God is the greatest question you’ll ever ask, and the greatest question you’ll ever answer.
There is a God my friend, and you are responsible to Him.
4th Annual Peace Partnership Golf Classic
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