18 open-ended questions therapists ask clients

Used in the right way open questions are an essential tool that can facilitate and deepen the counselling process.


Questioning in a non-judgmental way, with genuine curiosity and warmth is crucial for building rapport. Creating an environment of psychological safety for the client to express can be a way of getting to the root of the problem. Encouraging clients to express themselves more fully not only enhances self-awareness but also allows for a sense of ownership over one’s feelings and choices.

Effective questioning involves skill. The therapist must be cautious about misappropriate questions or setting their own agenda. Timing, subtly and empathetic attunement, whilst following the client’s lead is key to effective questioning.

Person-centred questions

Person-centred questions are a specific and skilful way of reflecting back to the client what they have said. It ensures that the therapist is not taking the lead in the questioning as it is believed the client is the expert.

It is the client who knows what hurts, what directions to go, what problems are crucial, what experiences have been deeply buried. It began to occur to me that unless I had a need to demonstrate my own cleverness and learning, I would do better to rely upon the client for the direction of movement in the process.

- Carl Rogers

Client: I’m anxious.
Therapist: You feel anxious? 
Turn a statement into a question.

Client: From the things he has said and done, it is obvious he doesn’t care for me.
Therapist: So, things he has done have given you the sense that he doesn’t care?
Translate clients’ statements of the truth into statement questions.

Client: I stopped myself from drinking by calling a friend.
Therapist: One of the things you do to stop drinking is to call friends?
Reflect behaviour that has helped a situation.

Client: I'm too shy to find a relationship. I'm afraid of being rejected.
Therapist: You'd like to be able to get into a relationship?
Recast a problem statement into a statement about the preferred future or goal.

Open-ended questions – an integrative approach

An integrative approach incorporates a range of modalities into the questioning. Each client will present their own unique problems, contexts, circumstances, and vulnerabilities that will respond differently. Therefore, a flexible integrative approach can be tailored towards each individual. The questions below incorporate different modalities:

What resonated with you from the last session?

Sometimes as therapists, we do not know what has 'landed' with the client. It can be useful to review work together and find out what is landing and resonating the most for the client.

From everything you have said what is the most important thing you want me to take from it? 

When a client has been talking for a long time about a multitude of themes and you do not want to disrupt the flow, this question can be very useful for honing down on what the most important thing is to focus on first.

What are the benefits and drawbacks of that perspective?

By weighing up the positives and negatives the client can analyse if a certain thought pattern is serving them.

Is there a discrepancy between how you act and how you want to act?

This question enables the client to question if their behaviour is aligning with their values and how they want to behave. You can explore this and then explore how to make changes.

What's the worst that could happen? What's the best that could happen? What's the most realistic outcome?

These questions allow the client to explore all the practicalities of a situation. Often asking what is the worst that can happen can help the client understand that often the worst-case scenario is unrealistic or can be managed which in turn can alleviate stress and worry.

What can you have control over?

Clients can often feel powerless in situations, exploring what they can control rather than what they can´t can be positive and empowering.

How did you manage last time this happened?

This question can enable the client to realise that they got through the problem before and so it encourages them to overcome the problem again. It may remind them of tools and resources that they do have.

If you were talking to a friend in the same position, what would you say to them? 

Clients that have a big inner critic can often chastise themselves, however, in most cases, they would never speak like this to a friend or relative in the same way. This question aims to allow the client to talk to themselves like they would a friend thus practicing more self-compassion and acceptance of self.

What is it actually like to say that?

When something poignant is said, this question invites the client to really hone in and think about what they just said, it attaches the feelings to the words.

If the feelings could speak, what would they say?

When a client is having difficulties expressing their feelings, sometimes it can be useful to reframe the question into something slightly more abstract.

What makes your heart sing?

When a client is lost, lacking purpose or enjoyment in life, this simple question can be extremely effective. Some clients have lost sight of what actually can make them happy.

What do you need?

It is a simple question, but sometimes clients, especially those who put everyone else´s needs before their own have lost sight of what they actually need, not what they want, but what they need.

What does success mean to you?

Those who are suffering from perfectionism or I am not 'good enough' often hold certain values to their perceived success or failure. Unpicking what success means and why, can be a useful process.

What can you appreciate about the strengths you do have? Or what do people say your strengths are?

Working on gratitude and character strengths can help the client see what positives they do have that they can action, rather than focusing on the negatives.

What are your three core values in life and how do you action them?

This question can be very useful for clients suffering lack of direction or suffering from an unstable sense of self. Focusing on personal values can help work on identity and self-empowerment.

Take a moment to feel into your body, what are you feeling right now?

The body and mind are intrinsically linked. Feeling into the body helps to understand the emotion more. Perhaps from here, you can use some mindfulness if the client is presenting outside of their window of tolerance.

"As you say that, I see you doing this...."?

This can be particularly useful when using immediacy and reading non-verbal cues, especially if they don't match up with what's being spoken/expressed.

I’m wondering, or I’m curious….?

The best till last and always a winner! It softens the question and allows for non-judgemental exploration and reflection.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Kingsbridge TQ7 & Exeter EX1
Written by Deborah Pleasants, MBACP
Kingsbridge TQ7 & Exeter EX1

I am a MBACP Integrative Counsellor, with a particular interest in mental health. I offer face to face counselling in Kingsbridge, Devon, I also offer online therapy nationwide.

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