At the beginning of April, in response to covid-19, I offered my eNewsletter recipients three free counselling sessions. The response was significant. Several themes emerged. Half of the respondents were warding off elevated distress and anxiety levels. The other half were taking advantage of the extra time for introspection–to explore their feelings, beliefs and stumbling blocks.
Of the latter group a number wanted to explore their values, strengths, and beliefs. They often discovered that seeking to understand their intimate partners, mothers, fathers, or grandparents would be helpful in their own self-discovery journey. In follow-up session emails I provided a list of optional open-ended questions and encouraged an attitude of curiosity.
David Cooperrider, developer of Appreciative Inquiry, supports this innate longing to know more about self and our significant others:
The best societal learning has always occurred when three generations come together in contexts of discovery and valuing — the child, the elder, and the middle adult. Where appreciation is alive and generations are re-connected through inquiry, hope grows.”
The Difference Between Closed and Open-Ended Questions
Closed questions have a limited number of answers. They often require a mere, Yes or No, such as, “Do you own a car?” Or they may ask for a fact such as, “How much do you weigh?” Open-ended questions invite exploration, thoughtfulness, and the possibility of going deeper into thoughts, beliefs and values.
Questions for Your Covid-19 Situation
- How can I settle into uncertainty?
- During this time, how can I be on purpose?
- What is the wisest decision for me?
- How can I be ok with not understanding it all?
- How much do I need to know to stay well?
- How can I seize the day?
- What tools will I use to be more in the moment–be calm and steady?
- What is the worst that can happen and can I be ok with that?
- What is unfolding in and for me, and my surroundings?
- What good can I focus on?
- In what ways can I reach out and support others?
- What can I do to take extra care of myself?
Open-Ended Questions for Personal Self-Exploration
It has been said that the most effective introspection begins with the important questions. Important questions may be specific to your history, personality, values and goals. I can’t tell what the important questions are for you. I have found some questions do lead people to a sense of coming home to themselves. I have a series of questions I ask clients before entering therapy with me. They often report the answers offer considerable insight. To get you started, here are a few of those questions along with some others:
- What did I enjoy doing as a kid?
- How do I describe how I was disciplined?
- What messages did I receive about work, money, family, fun, sex, and physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual matters?
- What are my worst and best childhood memories and events?
- Who were the top 7 influencers of my childhood and what impact did they have on me?
- What qualities did they have that I admire and want to pass on or disdain and want to stop or transform?
- What messages do I have in my self-talk from the most nurturing and caring person in my life?
- What messages do I have in my self-talk from the most critical and abusive person in my life?
- What major decisions led me to where I am?
- What are my top ten values? How do I demonstrate them?
- What is the best scenario I can imagine for myself and my loved ones?
- What are my gifts, talents and strengths and how do I demonstrate them?
- Who and what do I love and how do I put that love into action?
- What is working well in my life?
- Right now, what do I appreciate the most in my life?
- With no one else or the world changing, what do I want to think, say, and do differently?
- What are my first steps and what support do I need to get there?
Note: these questions will bring insight if your partner is open to you asking them of him or her.
Open-Ended Questions for Clarifying Childhood Experiences
My client said something like, “I know my mother loves me but her critical voice still rings in my head. I want to be different than her. Then I hate myself for acting like her and getting into critical blame battles with her and others. Thank you for helping me understand that these patterns didn’t start in my childhood, nor in hers. You suggested discovering some of my Mom’s history to better understand her, maybe even forgive her parenting mistakes. I don’t know where to start without making her defensive.”
By understanding our family history we can also develop some compassion for others and ourselves. Oftentimes, children make up immature stories of why they were neglected, yelled at or never hugged. As adults, that child’s conclusion may be getting in the way of full-out living.
Here are some suggestions for discovering your history through the lens of a significant person from your childhood.
One: Preparation Considerations
Before launching into exploration of your history with your significant person ensure:
- The time is a convenient one with few or no distractions.
- The setting is private with few or no distractions.
- Your significant person is in a neutral or open emotional state.
- You and the other have no unfinished emotional tension that needs calming.
Two: Develop an Attitude of Curiosity and Emotional Safety
Enter the conversation with a sense of exploration. Be a questioning observer. As much as possible ensure you sit with open posture and soft eyes. Show curiosity over judgement. Avoid shaking your head, no. Nod your head in agreement. This is not the time to attempt to change or correct, in any way, the speaker’s memory, thoughts or beliefs. This is the speaker’s story, the speaker’s reality. Notice if you have urges to defend, judge, criticize or flee, take a deep breath and relax into your shoulders, chest and stomach.
Use phrases such as:
- “I feel curious about . . .”
- “Tell me more about . . .”
- “Thank you, for telling me about . . .”
Note: You may want to start exploration conversations with some of the lighter ones listed below.
Three: Show Curiosity in Regular Conversation
When, in regular conversation, an event is described and relates to you, show curiosity and merely ask, “Will you tell me/us more about that?”
Four: Open a Conversation with a Deep Theme
- “I was thinking about you and giving birth to me. I’m curious (add an open-ended question).
- “I was thinking about when you and Dad got divorced. I’m curious (add an open-ended question).
- “I was thinking about the time you were in hospital and I was left with Uncle Joe. I’m curious (add an open-ended question).
After you hear the initial answer, say something like, “Please tell me more about that?” and/or “Do you mean (clarify that you understood). . .?”
Five: Keep Exploration Going or Not
If you and the speaker have maintained non-conflicted and open conversation, you may want to consider asking more questions. Here is a menu:
To start: “I’m curious. Will you share?”
Minimally Invasive Questions:
- What is the story behind (your ring, this teapot, your decision, your degree, your hobby?)
- How do you make your amazing (cake, decorating, appreciation letters); what is your process or secret?
- What is the best and worst part of (your day, job, relationship, book, movie, etc)
- What have you loved about your career?
- What were some of your most challenging career moments?
- When you faced challenging times how did you cope?
- What did you learn from those hard times?
- What’s the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought?
- What book has influenced you the most?
- What person has influenced you the most?
More Personal Questions
- When have you felt the most pretty (handsome)?
- If you could do anything you wanted, what would that be?
- When and where were you the happiest in your life?
- What do you think is the driving force in your life?
- How do you describe your strengths and gifts?
- What excites you right now?
- What are you looking forward to?
- What was your best (and worst) life experience?
- What is one of your defining moments?
- What is your best advice for me?
Tenderly Personal and Specific to Parents/Caregivers:
- What is the story of how you and Dad/Mom met?
- What did he/she fall in love with? What did you fall in love with in him/her?
- What was my birth like?
- What kind of baby was I; quiet, loud, sleepy, colic?
- How were you disciplined as a child?
- What kind of messages did you get as a child about work, money, family, fun, sex, and physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual matters?
- What was school like for you?
- What was the best and worst part of your childhood?
- How did you choose your career/job?
- What were the best/worst aspects of your career/job?
- What was going on for you before I was born?
- What was your biggest challenge raising me?
- What was your support circle like when were raising me?
- What was going on for you when (describe a time you felt abused or neglected)?
- If you were to do it all over again, are there any changes you’d make about raising me?
- What do you appreciate about our relationship now?
- What would you like to do more often with me?
- How can I be most helpful to you right now?
When we ask the questions, we have a sense of being in control. Ask the open-ended questions that will bring you resilient insights, understanding and conclusions.
Please check out these related posts:
- 10 Big Questions to Improve Your Communication Skills
- How to Strengthen Your Resilience: The Best Questions to Ask Yourself
Patricia Morgan MA CCC helps her readers, clients, and audiences lighten their load, brighten their outlook, and strengthen their resilience. To go from woe to WOW call 403.242.7796 or email a request.