Personal Questions in Therapy

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The classic response to a client’s question is to turn it back on the client, treating the question as revealing of a particular need. “I see it is really important to you to know…” This technique makes me flinch.

Personal questions in therapy… Should a counsellor answer them? There is much talk of how a therapist should not reveal too much about themselves in order to avoid taking the focus off the client. The classic response to a client’s question is to turn it back on the client, treating the question as revealing of a particular need. “I see it is really important to you to know…”

While any counsellor will be listening for the spirit behind the question, and sometimes it is worth pointing at that area and seeing if the client picks up on it, as a technique this one can make me flinch, in the way it erects a big blank screen in front of the therapist’s face and, in saying “I am not important, only you are”, both paradoxically inflates the therapist’s importance as an ineffable presence and possible fantasy object, and isolates the client, when the whole enterprise of therapy is — surely! — about relationship.

Of course the counselling relationship is one centred on the client’s needs, and so it is not appropriate for the counsellor to answer personal questions at length — and there are questions it may not be appropriate to answer at all, in which case that can be stated, and can mark a fruitful point in the counselling relationship. In fact, everything that takes place is grist for the mill, including questions.

But sometimes a question is just a question, an expression of normal human contact and curiosity. Sometimes it is the way in which a nervous client keeps their confidence up in the first session, by turning the tables. Maybe such a client does not need to feel “unmasked” immediately. The counsellor can notice, and some kind of discussion will arise eventually. In the meantime, questions can be carefully and honestly answered, with the same level of awareness used when saying everything else in the session.

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It may also be important to the client to know that you have in some way “been there” in terms of stages of life experiences, it may be necessary for them to ‘locate’ you somewhere on their mental map, and that may be more conducive to being real in therapy than being “out there” in some abstract isolated room speaking to a person without context. If the client feels that, in my opinion, the need for a concrete kind of connection and understanding can be welcomed.

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