Talk therapy is all about healing conversations with a goal in mind.
We partner with our clients and focus not only on the content of what we talk about, but also on the person, process, and quality of the therapeutic relationship.
The goals for therapy are as varied as the dilemmas our clients struggle with. A systematic approach to the exploration of issues can go a long way in effectively addressing what is brought to the table and, most of all, in getting to know the person who brings them.
What makes conversations in therapy different from our day-to-day discussions are the types of questions asked, as well the focus on the client during the interaction, not the problem.
Meeting the client’s psychological needs is another critical component that often determines the effectiveness of the therapeutic process. When our needs are not adequately met, we often make an unconscious attempt to satisfy them somehow, which can lead to maladaptive coping.
What distinguish different forms of therapy from each other are the content and techniques used to address the core needs that underlie the presenting problems clients usually describe.
Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.
There are several recognized basic psychological needs, and they vary with theories on what motivates human behavior. For a full description of some of these phenomena, see our series of articles on human motivation.
Two basic psychological needs that are most important for enabling the process of therapy, however, are shared by all: the need for cognition and the need for closure.
The need for cognition refers to our desire to understand our own experiences and things in our environment through thinking as we find ourselves having to consistently respond to increasing complexity in our environment and changes to our circumstances.
The need for closure motivates us to avoid ambiguities and to seek to arrive at a firm conclusion, which can have implications for our relationships and our ability to function effectively.
For even more therapy questions, see also our related article: Therapy Questions Every Therapist Should Be Asking.
This Article Contains:
- 37 Classic and Common Questions Therapists Often Ask
- Therapy Questions for Depression and Anxiety
- A Look at the Solution-Focused Therapy Miracle Question
- More SFBT Questions
- 20 CBT Therapy Question to Ask Clients
- 13 Music Therapy Interview Questions
- 10 Examples of Narrative Therapy Questions
- A Look at Gestalt Therapy Questions
- A Take-Home Message
37 Classic and Common Questions Therapists Often Ask
One aspect of therapy is partnering with a client in problem solving. Probing deeply into our clients’ lives through thought-provoking questions is often the bulk of what happens in talk therapy.
Inquiring about clients’ situations in a nonjudgmental way and with genuine curiosity and warmth is crucial not only for getting to the root of the problem, but also for building rapport and creating an environment of psychological safety.
Most misunderstandings in the world could be avoided if people would simply take the time to ask, “What else could this mean?”
Shannon L. Alder
When clients feel like they can bring their whole person into the therapeutic relationship, the conversation unfolds with genuine ease. Whenever possible, good therapy questions should be presented as a door-opener phrase that invites clients’ full disclosure and gradually and carefully challenges their assumptions, believes, and perspectives that may be contrary to their needs and goals.
Some of the most common therapy questions are included below.
What is the problem from your point of view?
Defining a problem in the initial stage of therapy can often be challenging; clients come in with unique perspectives on what the problem is and sometimes with what the solution to that problem should be.
Empathic, nonjudgmental listening is crucial. The goal is to make the client feel acknowledged and accepted for who they are, and for that, caution and patience are required.
The point of counseling is to create positive changes without the client feeling hurried or being worked on.
- How do you see the problem?
- How would you define the biggest challenge you’re facing right now?
- What are the things or people in your life that are causing problems for you?
How does this problem typically make you feel?
Validating clients’ feelings is an integral part of rapport building. Feelings are not facts, and there is no right or wrong way to feel about any given situation. Some clients are less equipped at articulating their feelings and may need help naming them.
When strong negative emotions show up, one way to deal with them is to parse them into smaller, less potent feelings. Practitioners also often observe that their clients are subject to conflicting emotions, and probing into those can often prove to be very useful, although at times uncomfortable for the client.
- How does this problem typically make you feel?
- How do you feel when a problem pops up unexpectedly?
- Do you feel sad, mad, hopeless, stuck, or something else?
- What else do you feel? Tell me more.
- When you tell me you feel angry, what else do you feel? Disappointed, hurt, betrayed, lonely, or something else?
What makes the problem better?
- How often do you experience the problem?
- How have you been coping with the problem(s) that brought you into therapy? What have you tried so far?
- What do you think caused the situation to worsen?
- How does the problem affect how you feel about yourself?
- What avenues have you pursued in the past that have worked well to solve the problem?
- Tell me about a time when you were not experiencing these difficulties.
Overall, how would you describe your mood?
Robert Thayer (1997), who studied how moods influence behavior, suggested that we should see moods as a form of internal barometer and a reflection of the interactions between our psychological states and our physiology, rather than mysterious, purely emotional reactions to events around us.
Unlike fleeting emotions, moods are more like the weather and represent the underlying biology of our daily cycles of energy and tension.
When we find ourselves overwhelmed by stress or tiredness, we are more likely to reach for self-destructive habits. Understanding our moods and their fluctuations better can allow us to improve our personal effectiveness substantially, both mentally and physically.
- Describe your typical daily mood. Is your mood like a roller coaster, or is it pretty steady?
- What energizes you and makes you feel more upbeat?
- What brings you down or makes you feel blue?
- How do you typically handle irritations, aggravations, and frustrations? Do you get mad easily? How does your anger come out?
- Do you feel mad when you don’t get your way or lose control?
- How do you get yourself out of a bad mood?
- We all use different strategies to cope. Do you find yourself reaching for caffeine, drugs, alcohol, sex, shopping, the internet, or something else to make you feel better?
- What have people close to you told you about your moods?
How connected do you feel to the people around you?
Exploring the dynamics of clients’ relationships with people in their lives can be a good predictor for how they will respond to forming a relationship in therapy, as we often play out similar tendencies in most of our relationships.
- Tell me about the important relationships in your life.
- What was it like growing up in your family?
- What do people keep doing that you dislike, and what do you wish they would change?
- What wrongs have been done to you that you haven’t forgiven?
What positive changes do you want to make in your life?
Exploring clients’ goals for therapeutic engagement and their attitudes toward change allows the practitioner to glimpse into what our clients value and what frustrates their ability to honor those values in their lives.
- On a scale of 0–10, how content are you with your life?
- Do you regularly set positive goals for your work life, your relationships or health, and relaxation?
- What is your attitude about change?
- What are these goals?
- What keeps happening repeatedly that keeps you from achieving them?
Therapy Questions for Depression and Anxiety
Many therapies designed for treating depression zero in on the problems with thinking, both about ourselves and the world around us.
While there may be many reasons for that, the biggest value of therapy is in creating awareness of the habits of mind that often don’t serve us.
The below questionnaire identifies typical symptoms of depression and is adapted from the Patient Health Questionnaire (Kroenke, Spitzer, Williams, & Löwe, 2010).
Over the last two weeks, how often have you been bothered by any of the following problems?
|Not at all||Several days||More than half the days||Nearly every day|
|1.||Little interest or pleasure in doing things.|
|2.||Feeling down, depressed, or hopeless.|
|3.||Trouble falling or staying asleep, or sleeping too much.|
|4.||Feeling tired or having little energy.|
|5.||Poor appetite or overeating.|
|6.||Feeling bad about yourself—or that you are a failure or have let yourself or your family down.|
|7.||Trouble concentrating on things such as reading the newspaper or watching television.|
|8.||Moving or speaking so slowly that other people could have noticed. Or the opposite—being so fidgety or restless that you have been moving around a lot more than usual.|
|9.||Thoughts that you would be better off dead or of hurting yourself in some way.|
If you experience any of the problems above, how difficult have they made it for you to do your work, take care of things at home, or get along with other people?
- Not difficult at all
- Somewhat difficult
- Very difficult
- Extremely difficult
Many forms of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), some discussed below, address the problems in thinking associated with depression. The good news is that these problematic thinking patterns can be adequately assessed and treated.
One such example is the measure of pessimism present in clients’ interpretations of life events as marked by their attribution or explanatory style.
Several questionnaires help therapists analyze the content of their clients’ perceptions such as Attributional Style Questionnaire (Peterson et al., 1982), the Children’s Attributional Style Questionnaire (Kaslow, Tannenbaum, & Seligman, 1978) and the Content Analysis of Verbatim Explanations Technique (Peterson, Schulman, Castellon, & Seligman, 1992).
Below is an example of how to adopt these assessments to real-life situations.
Ask the client to imagine as vividly as possible an event, such as having a serious argument with a family member or any other appropriate scenario best suited to the client’s situation.
Let the client indicate the major cause(s) of the event and then ask them to answer three follow-up questions regarding their chosen explanatory options.
A. Please select from below the important reasons that caused the above event. You may choose more than one:
- Personality problems
- Emotional problems
- Influence of past experience or feelings
- Being treated unfairly
- Communication problems
- Discrepancies in mutual expectations
- Other reasons
B. Are the causes you selected due to something about you or to something about other people or circumstances?
C. In the future, when facing a similar event, will these causes be present again?
D. Are the causes something that had an influence on only the above event, or do they also influence other areas of your life?
Other frequently used measures for depression and anxiety include the Beck Depression Inventory (Dozois & Covin, 2004) and the State–Trait Anxiety Inventory (Spielberger, 2010). The rating scale below has been adopted from part of the State–Trait Anxiety Inventory.
Read the statements below and indicate how much these apply to how you feel and think on a typical day.
|I feel pleasant.||1||2||3||4|
|I feel nervous and restless.||1||2||3||4|
|I feel satisfied with myself.||1||2||3||4|
|I wish I could be as happy as others seem to be.||1||2||3||4|
|I feel like a failure.||1||2||3||4|
|I feel rested.||1||2||3||4|
|I am “calm, cool, and collected.”||1||2||3||4|
|I feel that difficulties are piling up so that I cannot overcome them.||1||2||3||4|
|I worry too much over something that really doesn’t matter.||1||2||3||4|
|I am happy.||1||2||3||4|
|I have disturbing thoughts.||1||2||3||4|
|I lack self-confidence.||1||2||3||4|
|I feel secure.||1||2||3||4|
|I make decisions easily.||1||2||3||4|
|I feel inadequate.||1||2||3||4|
|I am content.||1||2||3||4|
|Some unimportant thought runs through my mind and bothers me.||1||2||3||4|
|I take disappointments so keenly that I can’t put them out of my mind.||1||2||3||4|
|I am a steady person.||1||2||3||4|
|I get in a state of tension or turmoil as I think over my recent concerns.||1||2||3||4|
Therapy questions for anxiety will often need to include probing into somatic symptoms and bringing awareness to the body for signals of onset of anxiety. Treatment for anxiety often also includes techniques for learning relaxation that can be used when the anxiety suddenly strikes.
Gestalt Therapy may be a helpful approach to combating somatic symptoms of anxiety (see below).
Questions to work with anxiety can also focus on reframing our perceptions of stress, as studies show that when we view stress as physically harmful, it tends to have a more detrimental effect on our health than when we see stress as information or an opportunity to rise to the occasion (McGonigal, 2015).
CBT and solution-focused therapies discussed below can be applied to specific behavioral patterns associated with anxiety-inducing thinking patterns and perceptions (see below).
A Look at the Solution-Focused Therapy Miracle Question
Solution-Focused Therapy is less concerned with the past and focused more on what is in the now and what we want to achieve in the future.
For that reason, interventions like the Miracle Question allow us to connect where we are today to where we want to be in the future by visualizing vividly and emotionally the goals we desire.
The Miracle Question, or the “problem is gone” question, is a method of questioning that a therapist can utilize to invite the client to envision and describe in detail how the future will be different when the problem is no longer present.
Imagine that tonight as you sleep, a miracle occurs in your life. A magical momentous happening has completely solved this problem and perhaps rippled out to cover and infinitely improve other areas of your life too. Think for a moment and tell me, how is life going to be different now? Describe it in detail. What’s the first thing you’ll notice as you wake up in the morning?
Some suggest that this intervention is most effective when a relaxation technique is briefly applied first. Others suggest that follow-up questions can help solidify the vision of the future.
- What do your senses pick up?
- What do you feel?
- What are you doing (in as many aspects of your life as possible)?
- With whom are you doing it?
- Where are you living?
- How much fun are you having?
- How much income are you earning?
- What difference are you making in the world each day?
The power of Miracle Question lies in the emotional connection we create to the detailed picture of what our lives could be like. We are, after all, veritable anticipation machines and can get energized by future possibilities. Not to mention, the devil is in the details, and the more vivid the picture of the future we paint, the more likely we are to see the necessary steps to get there.
More SFBT Questions
Solution-Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) is typically very brief (three to five sessions), focuses on finding solutions, and attends only minimally to defining or understanding the presenting problems (De Shazer et al., 1986).
The questioning style is intended to explore the client’s preferred future and goals in the context of their current resources and behaviors. Some examples of the therapeutic elements include problem-free talk, the Miracle Question, and ratings of progress scales (Ratner, George, & Iveson, 2012).
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
The following exercise, called Do One Thing Differently, is an excellent example of how this form of therapy zeros in on resolving issues directly in a concrete and immediate fashion. This seven-step intervention is intended to break a problematic pattern of behavior by replacing it with another (Miller, Hubble, & Duncan, 1991).
Do One Thing Differently
Step 1: Think of a time that things did not go well for you and bring to mind the things you usually do in a problematic situation. Choose to change one thing, such as:
- The timing
- Your body patterns and what you do with your body
- What you say and how you say it
- The location and where it happens
- The order you do things in
When a similar issue comes up again, what part of that problem situation will you do differently now?
Step 2: Think of something that somebody else does that makes the problem better or think of something that you have done in the past that made things go better.
- Think of something that somebody else does that works to make things go better.
- What is the person’s name?
- What do they do that you will try?
- Think of something that you have done in the past that helped make things go better. What did you do that you will do next time?
Step 3: Feelings are a vital source of information but do not have to determine your actions. You always have a choice, particularly when your previous experience shows that your pattern of emotional reactions causes behavior that undermines your future goals.
- Think of a feeling that used to get you into trouble, e.g., anger, sadness, etc.
- What feeling do you want to stop getting you into trouble?
- Think of what information that feeling is telling you.
- What does the feeling suggest you should do that would help things go better?
Step 4: Change what you focus on. What you pay attention to tends to loom larger, and you will notice it more. To solve a problem, try changing your focus or your perspective.
- Think of something that you are focusing on too much.
- What gets you into trouble when you focus on it too much?
- Think of something that you will focus on instead.
- What will you focus on that will not get you into trouble?
Step 5: Imagine a future when you are not having the problem you are having right now. Work backward to figure out what you could do now to make that future come true.
- Think of what will be different for you in the future when things are going better.
- How will things be different?
- Think of one thing that you would be doing differently before things could go better in the future.
- What one thing will you do differently?
Step 6: Sometimes, people with problems talk about what other people are doing that makes things worse for them, and they talk about why it is not possible to do better. Remember that there are aspects of your life where you do have control and can change your story.
- Talk about times when the problem was not happening and what you were doing.
- Think of a time when you were not having the problem that is bothering you.
- Tell me about that time.
Step 7: Focus on facts and actions away from interpretations.
- Talk about things you can see, not about what you believe the other person was thinking or feeling because we do not know that.
- When you make a complaint, talk about the action that you do not like.
- When you make a request, talk about what action you want the person to do.
- When you praise someone, talk about what action you liked.
20 CBT Therapy Question to ask Clients
The basic premise of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is that because emotions are difficult to change directly, CBT targets emotions by intervening in thoughts and behaviors that are contributing to the distressing emotions (Chambless & Ollendick, 2001; DeRubeis & Crits-Christoph, 1998).
Assessing cognition within the CBT model comes down to helping the client examine their thoughts by asking questions related to how the client perceives themself, others, and the future.
For example, when a client describes themself as incapable or a burden and generally perceive others to be critical or hard to please, their view of the future might be mostly pessimistic and contain beliefs that the future will only hold more losses and disappointments.
Assessing behaviors and precipitating situations within the CBT model is about examining the events, behaviors, thoughts, or emotions that activate, trigger, or compound patient difficulties (Chambless & Ollendick, 2001; DeRubeis & Crits-Christoph, 1998).
At the end of the day, the questions we ask of ourselves determine the type of people that we will become.
One helpful approach to examining behavior and symptoms is to address them in a broader context. The antecedents, behavior, consequences (ABC) model postulates that behaviors are primarily determined by antecedents or events that precede behavior, thoughts, or mood, and consequences or events that follow them.
The ABC model can be used as a functional assessment where behavior is shaped by antecedents and followed by consequences (Ellis & MacLaren, 1998).
The antecedent occurs before a behavior and may be a trigger for a particular reaction in the patient and can both increase and decrease a particular behavior. Antecedents, or events that occur before a behavior, typically elicit emotional and physiological responses.
Antecedents may be affective (an emotion), somatic (a physiological response), behavioral (an act), or cognitive (a thought). They are also subject to contextual factors (situational) and relational (interpersonal) factors.
For example, a patient who reports being depressed (behavior) may feel bad when they are alone at home late at night (contextual antecedent) or better when they are around family (relational antecedent). Consequently, they may feel even more dejected by thinking that they will always be alone (cognitive antecedent) (Ellis, & MacLaren, 1998).
Below are some questions to help examine antecedents to a particular behavior:
- What were you feeling right before you did that? (Affective)
- What happens to you physically before this happens? Do you feel sick? (Somatic)
- How do you normally act right before this happens? (Behavioral)
- What thoughts go through your mind before this happens? (Cognitive)
- Where and when does this usually happen? (Contextual)
- Do you do this with everyone, or just when you are around certain people? (Relational)
Behavior is any activity, including thoughts or feelings, that the patient exhibits in response to an antecedent. The questions below help examine a particular behavior:
- How do you feel immediately after this occurs? (Affective)
- Do you have any bodily sensations after this happens, like trembling? (Somatic)
- How do you react after this behavior occurs? (Behavioral)
- What do you think about after this happens? (Cognitive)
- Are you in a different place when this behavior ends? (Contextual)
- Are there any people who make this behavior worse? Make it better? (Relational)
Consequences are events that occur after the behavior and direct the patient to either continue or discontinue the behavior. Two kinds of consequences are examined in a functional assessment: short-term and long-term consequences. The questions below help explore the consequences of a particular behavior:
- Does this behavior get your attention in some way?
- What good things happen as a result of this behavior?
- Does this help you in some way?
- Do you feel a certain rush from doing this?
- Does this behavior help you avoid something you don’t want to do?
The goal of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy is to help the client develop more balanced thinking about the situation and combat their automatic thoughts and reactions. The questions below can help the client challenge automatic thoughts:
- What evidence is there that this thought is true?
- What evidence is there that this thought is not true?
- What would I tell someone I loved if they were in this situation and had these thoughts?
- If my automatic thought is true, what is the worst that could happen?
- If my automatic thought is true, what is the best thing that could happen?
Once the evidence has been generated, we want to combine it to form a more balanced thought. This thought will likely be much longer and more nuanced than the original emotionally charged thought. The questions below can help the client create a more balanced thought:
- What is a more balanced view that more accurately reflects the facts?
- Is there an alternative way of thinking about the situation?
- Can someone I trust understand this situation in a different way?
In the final step, ask the client to rate the believability of the alternative thought on a scale of 0–100. If the thought is not more than 50 believable, more work is needed to identify an alternative view. Go back to the evidence and keep working.
13 Music Therapy Interview Questions
Music Therapy, although not as common as other forms of therapy, is an established health profession in which music interventions are used by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program to address the physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals.
During a Music Therapy assessment, the practitioner learns about the person and their needs and works to identify an appropriate and effective plan for them. Questions about the relationship to music, preferences toward techniques, and goals for therapy are some of the most frequently used.
- Have you heard of Music Therapy?
- Have you ever used Music Therapy?
- If you have used Music Therapy, did you find it helpful?
- Has music affected your mood?
Part of being a Music Therapist is knowing how to manipulate the music in ways that will be effective for the moment and based on preference. What makes someone feel better is dependent on their music preference, and there are many benefits in asking detailed questions about individual experience with music.
- What type of music makes you feel completely relaxed?
- What type of music makes you feel energized?
- What type of music do you not like?
- If you had to pick one song to play continuously, nonstop, in the background of your life, what would it be?
- What is your favorite sound, and what instrument makes it?
- Have you played an instrument before?
- How do you feel about moving to music?
The American Music Therapy Association lists many benefits of Music Therapy treatment. This can help identify the goals for the Music Therapy engagement. A music therapist may ask:
What would you like to accomplish in music therapy?
- Promote a sense of wellbeing
- Learn to manage stress
- Alleviate pain
- Express feelings
- Enhance memory
- Improve communication
- Promote physical rehabilitation
The bulk of the session will consist of Music Therapy interventions. These are experiences the Music Therapist facilitates that are meant to target the client’s non-musical goals and objectives.
Here is a list of types of music-based interventions clients may be asked to choose from:
- Singing, performing, or playing an instrument
- Composing, which includes any group or individual songwriting process and can be as simple or complex as needed
- Improvising and creating music on the spot or in the moment
- Receiving music or simply listening, which can include a music and relaxation-type of experience, a lyric analysis intervention, and a “moving to music” type of experience as in gait training
- Listening to live or recorded music
- Learning music-assisted relaxation techniques, such as progressive muscle relaxation or deep breathing
- Singing familiar songs with live or recorded accompaniment
- Playing instruments, such as hand percussion
- Writing song lyrics
- Writing the music for new songs
- Learning to play an instrument, such as piano or guitar
- Creating art with music
- Dancing or moving to live or recorded music
- Writing choreography for music
- Discussing one’s emotional reaction or meaning attached to a particular song or improvisation
Wherever possible, individuals are encouraged to reflect on personal issues that relate to the music or associations that the music brings up. The session may also include choosing music that has meaning for the person, such as the music reflecting an issue that the person is currently occupied with (Geretsegger, Elefant, Mössler, & Gold, 2014).
10 Examples of Narrative Therapy Questions
Narrative Therapy assumes there is no such thing as objective reality and instead allows clients to redefine and rewrite their stories in ways that are more effective for coping with reality.
Like many other client-centered approaches, it sees the client as the expert on their own life and uses techniques that allow for separation of the problematic behavior from the person that we are so that we can effectively address the problem without getting our ego caught up in the process.
There are several techniques used in Narrative Therapy that are akin to storytelling techniques used in literary studies and can be effectively used to rewrite aspects of the situation a client is dealing with.
This could involve assigning a different meaning, viewing from a different perspective, deconstructing into smaller parts, externalizing the problem, or merely focusing on a more optimistic thread.
Below is a list of some of the techniques and examples of questions that can be used. A more detailed explanation of Narrative Therapy techniques can be found in our article 19 Narrative Therapy Techniques, Interventions + Worksheets.
|Deconstructive||Show the clients that stories are constructed and narratives exist in larger systems.||Who told you “real men” don’t pay attention to their health?|
|Renaming||Support clients’ self-efficacy by sharing authorship and expertise with them.||What would you call this problem of not paying attention to your diabetes?|
|Perspective||Help clients explore other people’s viewpoints, particularly their views of the client.||Does everyone agree that you’re not capable of managing your weight, or does someone have another idea?|
|Opening space||Help clients bring hopeful thoughts and actions to the surface and be explored; highlight clients’ efficacy regarding the problem.||Are there ever times when the issue you’re struggling with doesn’t control you? Tell me about that time.|
|Hypothetical (Miracle)||Stimulate clients’ imagination to envision different, more hopeful futures.||Suppose a miracle happened and your problem was solved. How would your life be different?|
|Preference||Establish clients’ preferences and check in to make sure that they prefer the story of success to the problem story.||How did you feel when you got that promotion? Is this something you really want?|
|Story development||Explore and linger over all the elements of the preferred story.||Tell me more about how you were able to resist fast food. What exactly happened?|
|Redescription||Help client recognize preferred qualities in themselves and probe about the implications for their sense of identity||What does this say about you as a person that you were able to test your blood sugar daily last week?|
|Bifurcation||Encourage clients to align themselves against the problem.||Is the event you’re describing on the side of not caring or against not caring?|
|Stopper||Refocus the client when they seem to be getting stuck in the old story.||Which story are you telling now?|
A Look at Gestalt Therapy Questions
Sometimes intervening in the vicious cycle of negative thinking and feeling will require that we focus on the present moment with the intensity of a stage light or a magnifying glass.
Gestalt Therapy is one such method that teaches us that full awareness and attention has the potential of resolving an issue in a way that rationalizing about it cannot. The goal of Gestalt Therapy is to stop living life as if we are on auto-pilot.
Many people find that they truly live in the present only a small amount of the time, and when they learn to do it more consciously, this can often be a breakthrough. The Gestalt Therapist appreciates the person as part of their environment. The mind, the body, and the environment are all part of one consideration.
During therapy, clients are often asked questions to help them tune in to their immediate experiences, such as:
- What are you feeling?
- What are you thinking?
- How does your body feel right now?
- What are you seeing and doing in this very moment?
- What sounds do you hear around you?
Practicing Gestalt Therapy, Fritz Perls used many experiments to get his clients to increase awareness, such as telling them to feel their body (Perls, Hefferline, & Goodman, 1951).
He would ask his clients to tell themselves what they were seeing and doing in each moment. He then asked them what difficulties they were experiencing while they were doing this, to which they invariably answered, “What difficulties?”
The discovery was that as long as we are fully in the present, noticing and feeling the environment around us, we are trouble free.
Some of the techniques commonly used in Gestalt Therapy are:
- Amplification, where the client is asked to repeat and exaggerate a particular action, feeling, or expression so that they become more aware of it.
- Guided fantasy, where the client is asked to visualize either an actual event from the past or a hypothetical situation. The therapist then helps the individual to focus on what they are thinking, feeling, and doing as they mentally experience this event.
- Dreamwork, where dreams are not interpreted, but acted out in therapy. The different parts of a dream are thought to represent different aspects of the individual, so by becoming each part, the individual becomes more aware of the many different sides to their personality.
- Internal dialogue, where the client engages in a dialogue between opposing poles of their personality.
- Role-play, where the client dramatizes relevant aspects of their existence. This may involve taking on the role of a character in their life or of a part of the self. The empty chair technique is a classic example of role-play.
- The empty chair technique, where the client sits across from an empty chair and is asked to imagine that someone else, the client themself, or a part of themself is sitting in that chair. The therapist then encourages the client to engage in a conversation with the imaginary person or part of a person. As the conversation progresses, the client alternates roles, switching from one chair to the next accordingly. The empty chair technique is often used to enhance clients’ awareness of polarities in their personality so they can work toward integrating them (Perls, Hefferline, & Goodman, 1951).
A Take-Home Message
Many accomplished practitioners complain that today’s training of therapists does not stress the importance of relationships enough (e.g., Yalom, 2002).
Yalom’s (2002) school of thought stresses the crucial role that warmth, empathy, and persistent focus on the here-and-now play in psychological healing.
He warns that not enough therapists encourage patients to go deep and believes that we should be teaching our students the importance of relationships with other people: how you work with them, what the relational pathology consists of, how you examine your own conscience, and how you examine the inner world.
Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.
Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
What do you think is missing from how talk therapy is practiced today?
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