Some useful questions…


When we’re working with people who have pain, and especially when we’re asking them to do things differently, we’re going to notice ‘shifts’ or changes in their presentation that suggest they’re responding to the situation – usually it’s an ‘automatic thought’ that’s jumping in, or perhaps it’s the emotional response to an AT that they’re demonstrating.

What can we do when we see this?

Well the first thing is to catch them ‘in the moment’ and ask them ‘what was going through your mind just then?’, and clarify with them exactly what they were thinking – not simply accepting the first part of an unuttered thought. For example, we quite often hear the person say ‘Oh no!’, or ‘no way’. This is just the first part of a longer statement which could be something like ‘Oh no I’m going to feel pain’ or ‘No way, if I do that, it’ll hurt too much’. And it’s especially important to find out what it means for them to ‘feel pain’ or ‘hurt too much’, or we miss half the message. The ‘hurt too much’ probably means something like a judgement /attitude ‘…and that’s awful’, or a rule ‘…I shouldn’t have this much pain’, or a belief ‘…if I have this pain it means something is telling me to stop’.

We might at this point want to ask the person ‘what do you think will happen if you do have this pain?’ or some other gentle challenge, or we may instead decide to ask whether this statement helps the person to persist with an activity (and get it done), or hinders.

Or we can consider using some Socratic questioning… done with respect and care, Socratic questioning can help the person find out for him or herself the accuracy and completeness of thinking, to support them moving towards their goals.
I clicked into Changing Minds website for a nice summary of the six categories of questions that Socrates asked his students when helping them to draw out their own conclusions.

(1) Concept clarification – helping people understand what they are thinking, and the basis for their conclusions. These questions are ‘tell me more’ questions such as ‘Why do you think that is?’, ‘What does that mean?’, ‘Can you put that another way?’
(2) Probing assumptions – helping people question their assumptions or underlying beliefs about a situation. Questions like this are helpful when someone has, for example, received some information about hurt vs harm, but is having trouble integrating the new information with what they already know. Some examples of this type of question are: ‘How did you arrive at your belief that…?’, ‘Do you agree or disagree with …?’, ‘what would happen if…?’, and ‘how can we prove or disprove ….?’
(3) Probing rationale, reasons and evidence – which means, on our part, not simply accepting something as a ‘given’, but asking instead for evidence to support their belief. This is particularly helpful when challenging someone’s assumption that ‘everyone does …’ or ‘because it’s important that I …’. Questions we can use include ‘can you give me an example when [X] happened? And an example when [X] didn’t? Are you really able to say ‘everyone does’…?; ‘Why is that so?’; ‘where is it written that…?’; ‘Does just because you’ve done it that way mean it can’t be done any other way?’
(4) Questioning viewpoints – This approach works to suggest that there are other, equally valid viewpoints, which again is very helpful when asking someone to think about the way they approach activities (eg when introducing quota or pacing!). For example ‘Do you think there are any alternatives to this way?’, ‘why is it important that…?’, ‘what is good about doing it that way? and what is not so good about doing it that way?’, ‘what would you say if we compared [X] with [Y]?’, ‘what would you say to someone else in this position?’ – that last one is especially helpful!
(5) Probe implications and consequences – the consequences of taking one course of action can be checked for both foreseen and unforeseen consequences, or immediate and delayed consequences. It’s helpful to remind people that their ways of coping have often worked – but have unforeseen consequences that may not be exactly what they intended! Some questions to use are: ‘how does that fit with …[values]..?’, ‘what would happen in the long-term if you went ahead with that?’, ‘why is [X] important?’, ‘what could happen if you tried [X] out?’
(6) Questions about the questions – by asking the person questions about what they have questioned, and why, the person starts to think about their own thinking process. This can be really helpful as a review, or when they’ve gone away and tried and have come back with more questions. Some things you can say are:’Why do you think I asked about that?’, ‘Why do you want to ask about that?’, ‘what does that mean?’

For some more web-places to review Socratic questions, try Carleton’s site – OK, it’s about teaching, but if we’re wanting to move beyond reciting ‘information’ and into deeper change, at some level we are teaching. I particularly liked the section in Carleton’s site about guiding discussion.
And this one ‘In the Room’ psychotherapy blog is a great resource, not just for socratic questioning, but also for psychotherapeutic strategies to challenges such as when clients say ‘I don’t know’, and When clients don’t do homework’ – my favourite response to that is to say ‘but it’s not school, so let’s call it a mission, should you choose to accept it!’.

So… your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to click into RSS feed above (if you don’t want to miss another exciting installment!), or make a comment (to really make my day!), or come on back another day for another post!

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