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First Sessions and Asking Questions

Only when we know our counselees well will we be able to guide them well from the Scriptures.

Jul 27, 2022

My wife and I had been married for about a year when she became mildly concerned about a habit of mine. Our neighborhood had been out of power from a massive storm for several days when the power company showed up to remedy the problem. I disappeared from the house for about fifteen minutes and when I came back inside, she asked, “Where were you?” “I went to talk to the power company guy—I wanted to know what he was doing so I (interrogated him) asked him some questions.”

Her immediate response was, “Your curiosity is going to get you in trouble someday.”

I don’t know that I have suffered harsh consequences for my curiosity, but it is true that I am curious about virtually everything—“How does that work?” “Why/how did you do that?” “What is next?” are common kinds of questions in my conversations.

That natural curiosity is a blessing as a biblical counselor—it leads to asking many questions and always being inquisitive. 

Cultivate a Questioning Spirit

The biblical counselor doesn’t want to cultivate a condescending or skeptical spirit with his counselees—such an attitude would certainly violate many aspects of biblical love (1 Corinthians 13:4-8). But he does want to ask many questions of the counselee for at least two reasons. First, he wants to demonstrate that he is listening to the needs, concerns, and circumstances of the counselee (Proverbs 18:13). He is seeking knowledge of the counselee’s situation that will equip him to care for him (Proverbs 18:15). He is gathering as much information as he can so that he is not surprised when he hears the “other side of the story” (Proverbs 18:17). Second, he asks questions so that he can draw out the heart of the counselee (Proverbs 20:5). He is aware that in probing and asking questions, the heart of the counselee will be exposed—and then the counselor will be better equipped to assist the struggler.

Counselors are often tempted to assume we have all the data we need without asking more probing questions. A counselee might say, “I used to struggle with lust, but now I’m doing okay.” We might assume he is talking about pornography and nod our heads and say, “Yes, many do, but I’m glad the Lord has given you victory” and then not pursue it further (because it feels awkward and intrusive). But we want to understand the circumstance and we want to draw out his motives. So here are some questions that might be helpful to ask to the statement, “I used to struggle with lust, but now I’m doing okay”:

  • Can you explain what you mean by lust?
  • If by lust you mean “pornography,” tell me about that problem. How often were you looking? How long did you look each time you looked? What kind of pornography did you look at (pictures, videos, books, homosexual, etc.)? How did you access the pornography? When did you typically look at pornography? Did you masturbate when you viewed pornography?
  • When did you stop looking? (When was the last time you looked?)
  • How did you stop looking? (What actions did you take to help you?)
  • If you have stopped, are you still masturbating (and looking at the images you have stored in your mind)? How often?
  • Did you view the pornography with anyone else?
  • What other kinds of sexual sin have you committed?
  • What satisfaction do you get from pornography?

A principle I learned from one of my mentors many years ago was, “Always ask the next natural question.” With the information I have received from the counselee, I want to think about appropriate follow-up questions that will give me a more complete understanding of the counselee’s situation, and also begin exposing his heart and motives.

Some Questions for the First Session

One of the goals for the first session is to gain involvement with the counselee; I want them to know that I am interested in them and care about them. So I write a list of questions (generally at least twenty-plus questions) to indicate that I have prepared specifically for them and have already been thinking and praying about their situation.

Some of those questions are general for most counselees:

  • Tell me your life story in ten minutes or less; I know that is hard, so tell me the key events, key people, and key places in your life story—the things that have made you who you are.
  • Who are the most influential people in your life?
  • Who are your friends? Tell me about them.
  • What do you read? (I want to know how his mind is being shaped and influenced.)
  • How much media do you consume daily (TV, internet, video games, movies, social media)?
  • How much do you sleep nightly? (I will often ask them to keep track of their daily activities in half-hour increments for a week.)
  • What is your exercise routine?
  • What do you eat?

Other questions will be gleaned from the Personal Data Inventory they have submitted (and our counseling ministry will not even schedule an appointment until we have a PDI). Here are some sample questions that I have asked because of what I have read on a PDI:

  • What is the source of conflict with your wife? About what issues do you argue?
  • What kinds of words and volume do you use when in conflict (vulgarity, profanity)?
  • How do you resolve conflict?
  • What does it mean to confess? Forgive? How often do you confess and forgive?
  • Give me a definition of love. How do you communicate love for your spouse?
  • What does it mean to be a friend? Who are your friends?
  • You say on the PDI you are “losing faith/hope.” Can you explain what you mean?
  • Tell me about your suicidal thoughts—How often do you have them? When did they begin? When do you typically have them? What is your plan to commit suicide (how, where, when)?
  • What are your favorite music bands and singers?
  • How many hours per day do you play video games? Do you play at night after your family has gone to bed? What games do you play? Are you playing on your computer or online? If online, have you cultivated inappropriate relationships with other players?
  • Tell me about your family/step-family. What is your relationship like with your siblings? Step-father? Mother?
  • When did you last talk to your biological father? What did you say in your most recent letter(s) to him?
  • How are you anxious? (What do you do when you are anxious and when do you get anxious?)
  • You say you are “depressed.” Did someone diagnose you with that label? Who and when? What medications are you taking and what have they done for you?
  • When were you diagnosed with postpartum depression (and who diagnosed)? What were your symptoms and how were they treated? Have they changed?
  • You say you are having sex infrequently in your marriage: How often in the past month? Six months? Year? Is this for a medical reason? Is it by mutual consent?
  • Tell me how your step-children relate to you and to each other. How do you relate to them?
  • Is divorce an option? Has it been discussed or thought about? Have lawyers been contacted for information? For what sins against you would you divorce?
  • How much debt do you have (house, cars, student loans, credit cards, payday loans, other)?
  • What were you wanting when you…?

When I am sensing that there may be more data that I don’t have, but I am struggling to find a pathway to lead me to the information I need, I will often ask, “What is the one thing I don’t know about you that I need to know?”  

Some Spiritual Questions for the First Session

Some people will be willing to tell you their spiritual story, while others need to be prodded. Here are some questions I like to ask:

  • Tell me about your relationship with God. (I ask the question that vaguely because I want to know their perspective about that relationship and initially I don’t want to lead them to a particular answer.)
  • Tell me the gospel in sixty seconds or less. (I want to know if they understand the heart of the gospel message and whether they can articulate it clearly.)
  • Tell me how you came to trust Christ.
  • How has the gospel changed you? What do you do now as a believer that you didn’t do as a non-believer (or what have you stopped doing)?
  • How often do you read the Bible? How many days a week and for how long? What did you read today/this week?
  • How often do you pray? How many days a week and for how long?
  • How often do you participate in worship? Sunday School? Are you connected to a home group?
  • How are you serving others in your church?
  • What gives you joy/happiness?
  • When are you prone to sadness/despair? 

Two Resources for Learning to Ask Questions

For some of us, asking questions is something that comes naturally. For others of us, asking questions seems intrusive and confrontational. But if we will care well for our counselees, we will ask them questions.

Two resources I have found helpful for cultivating a “questioning spirit” are:

  • David Powlison, Seeing with New Eyes, 132-40. He provides a list of x-ray questions that go to the motive of the counselee. This is a particularly helpful list if the counselee has not provided much information on the PDI.
  • Paul David Tripp, Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands: People in Need of Change Helping People in Need of Change, 316-17. On those pages he provides a list of “heart revealing questions” that expose the agendas and desires of counselees.

On the third or fourth counseling session with a couple, I was listing on a white board all the circumstances that they told me were putting pressure on their marriage. We had listed six to eight items, and I was about to put down my marker when the husband said, “Oh—well, Sonny.”

“Sonny?” I responded.

“Yes—our child who is paralyzed.”

“Have you told us about him previously and I’ve forgotten?” I asked (almost panicked in my mind).

“No. We just didn’t think about it.”

Obviously, their disabled child (not the real name or condition) was a significant pressure on their relationship. I hadn’t thought to ask, and they hadn’t thought to tell. That demonstrates the need to keep asking and keep probing with questions—always being curious for the purpose of caring well for our counselees. Only when we know them well will we be able to guide them well from the Scriptures.

This blog was originally posted at CBCD. View the original post here.