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Guided Inquiry: Questions For Therapists To Get To Know Their Patient

November 13, 2023


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One of the most challenging aspects a therapist may face is creating an environment that enables clients to be vulnerable and share their true feelings and emotions. This can be a delicate process, as many individuals may have never opened up in the way that therapy encourages them to. 

In order to create a sense of safety and trust, it can be crucial for therapists to consider the types of questions they ask and how these questions may teach them about their patients’ unique personalities, mental health, and expectations for therapy. These initial conversations can lay the groundwork for a transformational experience that often can only be achieved within a familiar therapeutic relationship. 

Creating a strategic approach to these questions may help to encourage the creation of an environment where clients feel safe to gradually open up and fully engage in the therapeutic process. Keep reading to learn more about the various questions you might ask your clients during sessions and how these questions can support a strong therapeutic alliance as well as recovery from different mental health concerns.

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Questions To Help Get To Know Your Patients

Therapists play a pivotal role in helping their patients navigate their own unique journeys of self-discovery and healing. Building a solid foundational relationship in the first therapy session and beyond can be crucial, and this often begins by asking the right questions that pave the way for meaningful conversation and empathetic understanding. When individuals are seeking therapy, they may have certain hesitancies or doubts about the process. Dedicating plenty of energy toward making them feel safe, heard, and understood can go a long way in creating positive outcomes in therapy.

The intention behind these questions is to foster an environment of trust and empathy and to establish a therapeutic relationship that helps the patient feel comfortable. Such a relationship may help to enhance the effectiveness of therapy, promoting improved mental health outcomes. In fact, research shows that the development of the therapeutic alliance may be the most important predictor of successful treatment. 

Here are a few examples of questions to consider when designing your initial treatment strategy:

  • Open-Ended Questions

An open-ended question is a type of inquiry that does not permit a simple “yes” or “no” response but rather encourages expansive, introspective answers. These questions can enable therapists to gain a deeper understanding of their patients’ experiences, feelings, and perceptions. They may also help provide invaluable insights into the client’s world that can guide the formation of an effective treatment plan. Open-ended questions foster a conversational tone and create a space for the patient to express their story in their own words, which can be vital in building a trusting and empathetic therapeutic relationship.

An example of an open-ended question that therapists might use to understand their clients on a deeper level is, “Can you tell me more about your experience with that?” 

This question is purposefully broad, allowing the client to take the conversation in the direction they feel most comfortable. It is also fluid and may be applied to nearly any topic of conversation the therapist would like to explore more. It encourages clients to explore their thoughts and feelings in depth, which could help them express feelings, opinions, or perspectives that even they may have been unaware of prior to considering these types of inquiries. This is just one example of the many open-ended questions therapists may use to encourage open dialogue during sessions.

  • Personal Questions

When engaging in therapy, the therapist’s understanding of the patient can be an essential factor in the treatment process. One crucial step in early sessions involves the use of personal questions to gain insight into a patient’s life and perspectives and to establish a strong therapeutic alliance. These questions provide a platform for therapists to delve into the patient’s history, current state of mind, and future aspirations. They not only initiate the dialogue between the therapist and the patient but also promote an environment of trust and empathy, which can be fundamental for any therapeutic relationship.

For example, therapists might start with basic questions such as “Can you tell me a little about yourself?” or “What brought you to therapy?” These questions are open-ended and non-threatening, allowing the patient to share at their own pace and comfort level. Further, queries like “What does a typical day look like for you?” or “How would you describe your mood in general?” can offer insights into the patient’s daily routines and emotional state.

Exploring a client’s family history may also be helpful, as it can deeply influence their current experiences and perspectives. Questions like “Can you share some details about your family history?” or “How would you describe your relationship with your family members? Are there any patterns or dynamics you’ve noticed?” may also be useful. 

These questions create the opportunity to discuss familial patterns that may be contributing to a patient’s issues and the influences and dynamics that might need to be addressed during therapy.

  • Affirmation

Affirmations are short, meaningful, and positive statements that a person can use to challenge their negative or unhelpful beliefs about themselves. This practice can be a powerful tool in the therapeutic process by reinforcing positive self-perceptions and motivating the client to continue working toward their goals. Therapists can use affirmations to recognize small victories, helping the client see that they are making progress, even when it feels slow or insignificant. This act of recognition can boost the client’s self-esteem and foster a more optimistic outlook toward therapy sessions.

Moreover, using affirmations can aid therapists in the process of getting to know their patients on a deeper level. When therapists acknowledge a client’s strengths or progress, it can create an opportunity for deeper conversations about personal experiences, coping mechanisms, and the ways the client perceives their own growth. Group therapy is another tool that may be used to affirm an individual’s experiences and help expose them to new perspectives. 

Affirmations may lead to invaluable insights into the client’s background, individual behaviors, and approach to handling life’s ups and downs. They may also help build confidence in the client and allow them to recognize the progress they’re making. Consequently, affirmations not only serve as catalysts for positive thinking but may also facilitate a more comprehensive understanding of the client’s life narrative.

  • Gestalt Therapy Questions

Gestalt therapy is a type of talk therapy that focuses on improving an individual’s self-awareness and direction in life, rather than concentrating on their past experiences. Therapists who use Gestalt therapy may ask questions that start with “what” or “how” instead of “why.” These inquiries can offer a powerful way for therapists to establish a deeper understanding of their patients. They encourage patients to explore their feelings and experiences in the present moment, promoting self-awareness and personal growth. 

These questions are designed to help individuals focus on the ‘here and now,’ and may allow therapists to guide their patients toward recognition of their own behaviors, responses, and thought patterns. Gestalt questions encourage mindfulness and an opportunity to assess one’s current mental state rather than focusing on past or future variables. 

Some key examples of Gestalt questions might be, “Can you remember what you felt in your body when you experienced that event?” or “How is that situation affecting you right now?” This type of inquiry is designed to guide clients toward self-awareness by encouraging them to tap into their sensory experiences. Rather than focusing solely on the cognitive or emotional aspects of a situation, Gestalt questions delve into physical sensations, promoting a holistic understanding of one’s experiences.

This therapeutic approach may help to foster a compassionate and non-judgmental environment where patients feel heard, understood, validated, and empowered to create positive change in their lives. 

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The Importance Of A Strong Therapeutic Relationship

While the theory and practices that underlie mental health treatments are fundamental to the ability to help individuals work through challenging emotions, the relationship between the therapist and the patient plays an equally important role in determining the success of treatment. 

According to a recent review of the literature, researchers found that characteristics such as empathy, non-possessive warmth, respect, and authenticity can all have a significant impact on the results of treatment. Additionally, they note that the therapeutic relationship is an independent factor from the mode of treatment, playing its own role in the ability of treatment to be successful. This study demonstrates that the dynamics of the personal relationship between a treatment provider and their client play an important part in the ability for positive progress to be made.

While it can be important to consider the types of questions that will be asked, this is only one aspect of developing a solid basis for which treatment may be conducted. Other considerations include practicing consistent empathy, respect, and authenticity when building a relationship with clients. 

Online Therapy And The Therapeutic Alliance

Online therapy can play a pivotal role in modern mental healthcare, providing an opportunity for those experiencing conditions like anxiety and depression to express themselves and engage in the therapeutic process. By leveraging technology to bridge geographical and logistical barriers, online therapy helps ensure that treatment is more accessible to those in need. 

Platforms like BetterHelp allow users to have a safe and comfortable space to open up about their fears, thoughts, and feelings. Much like in-person therapy, virtual sessions can provide therapists with just as much opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of their clients and create effective treatment plans. 

The Efficacy Of Online Therapy

In one study, researchers assessed the effectiveness of online-delivered cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) compared to in-person sessions. The outcomes of their research demonstrated that CBT sessions delivered online are just as, if not more,  effective than traditional face-to-face therapy in treating a range of mental health conditions. This study strongly supports the use of online therapy as a viable alternative to in-person sessions, providing a lifeline for those who are hesitant or unable to access traditional methods of treatment. The convenience and accessibility of online therapy make it a promising approach for therapists to get to know their patients on a deeper level and continue to provide them with the care they need.


Developing a strong bond with clients can be one of the most important factors influencing the overall success of mental health treatments. When starting out with a new client, you may want to consider preparing a few types of key questions such as personal questions, open-ended questions, and Gestalt questions to begin building the therapeutic alliance. Additionally, affirming the client’s progress and ensuring you’re practicing empathy, authenticity, and respect can also influence the quality and strength of the therapeutic alliance that is established. Whether you’re delivering therapy in person or online, both settings have the potential to create positive mental health outcomes for clients.