10 Useful Questions for Counselors to Ask

Queries that have helped my clients move forward.

Posted Apr 18, 2019

 Public Domain Pictures
Source: Public Domain Pictures

The effective counselor asks good questions. Of course, many good ones derive from what the client says. But I’ve found the following questions valuable in many circumstances: You might ask them of yourself, of friends, colleagues, job or dating candidates, or in networking situations.

I’m a career counselor and so the questions are most directly applicable in that, but they’re more broadly applicable.

What have you been thinking and perhaps doing since our previous session? This is usually the first thing I ask. That encourages but doesn’t require the client to build on what we did in the previous session. It also makes clear that I’m interested in whether s/he did the homework but is not asked in a way to make the client defensive, which would be the case if I asked, “So, did you do your homework?”

If you didn’t care what anyone thought, what would you do? That question helps the client temporary shed the shackles of conventionality and responsibility to family. Of course, we usually get back to the practical, but it’s often elucidating to first hear about what their unfettered self would do. Then we try to find a way to accommodate both the ideal and the real.

The case for doing X is this (insert). The case for doing Y is this (insert). Which do you think is wiser? This is particularly helpful when the client needs a summary of the pros and cons that had been discussed, or when the client isn’t ideationally fluent. That question allows me significant input while still making clear that the client is the decision-maker. Note my use of “wiser.” That invokes the client’s best self without my pressuring them to be a fount of wisdom.

If you were your twin, what advice would you give?  I use that question in two circumstances: when I’d sound preachy if I said it, or when I’m stuck and don’t know where to go. Often, the client comes up with his or her own solution, which is better than if it came from me.

A variation: I ask the client to trade seats with me and I ask, “Pretend you’re the counselor. What advice would you give the client?”

What does this plan score on the (insert client’s name) meter? It goes from 0 to 10, with 0 meaning you hate it and 10 meaning you love it. The key to this question working is the follow-up question. Unless the answer is 9 or 10, I ask, “What keeps it from being a 10?” That usually helps us improve the plan. I keep invoking The Meter until it’s at least a 9.

If I were a genie who couldn’t grant your wish but could answer your question, what would it be? Often, at the end of the session, there are things the clients aren’t clear about, for example, regarding their homework or an unspoken emotional issue. Their asking that question often elucidates. After addressing that question, I say, "This is a generous genie. Have another question?"

If you were telling a loved one what you got out of today’s session, what would you say?  I’ve found that to be a more helpful question than, “Would you summarize today’s session?” because their imagining they’re talking with a loved one tends to engender more honesty.

In between sessions, if you have a question, would you email me? That way you have your ally with you not just during our hour. My clients appreciate that but rarely have overused it.

The following may also be useful in conversations with friends, even strangers, for example, at a networking event:

  • What are you thinking about these days?
  • Have anything interesting coming up?