Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Open and Closed-Ended Questions

Open-ended Questions

An open ended question is:

Tell me a little bit more about the abuse you just mentioned.
I would pose this question to the client, to gain more information than she initially offered. For example, I ask her to talk about her reasons for initiating counseling at this time in her life and she responds that she was abused as a child. To gain a more accurate understanding of her experiences, I would ask the above open-ended question to encourage her to expound on her answers, and to give me more information. I would, as Knapp (2008) explains, ask an open-ended question when I expect more information is available and important for my understanding and the therapeutic process.

Knapp (2008) explains open-ended requests (or questions) are a way for counselors to ask the client for more information for which there is reasonable expectation that the additional information is readily available. Counselors ask for additional information when it is important and pertinent to understanding the client. The open-ended question elicits a further response.

A follow-up to the above open-ended question could be an open or closed-ended question. For example, after I ask her the initial open-ended question (tell me a little bit more about the abuse you've just mentioned), she responds and offers more information that insinuates there may have been others involved in her abuse. Because I want to have a definitive idea of the people involved in the situation, I ask a closed-ended question:

Who else was involved in your abuse?

This follow-up question gives me an answer that is factual and definitive, and as Knapp (2008) suggests "caps-off the client's disclosure" (p. 109). Rather than eliciting a further response, the closed-ended question more articulately defines or describes already given information. The follow-up question adds definition and precision to the client's previous response.

Closed-ended Questions

An example of a closed-ended question is:

You used the word 'abuse'. Were you sexually abused?

I will use this type of question when I need a more specific, precise, but brief answer (Knapp, 2008). For example, my client has just told me that she sustained abuse as a child. To have a more accurate understanding of the circumstance, I need to know if her abuse was sexual in nature. Knapp (2008) suggests closed-ended questions elicit a "specific piece of information" (p. 116). When using closed-ended questions, the counselor should understand the limitations of the client's more focused response that usually lacks subjectivity as well as emotion (Knapp, 2008).

After she responds in the negative, I would then ask her an open-ended question:

Can you talk a little more about your abuse?
This open-ended question would elicit a subjective, personal experience and most likely an emotional response about her experience. This follow-up question will help both of us to have a better conceptualization of her primary issues. It will give me a broader knowledge of her experience as well as providing her with the space to expand on her experience, at least as much as she feels safe to do so. The open-ended questions put few limits on the client's response (Knapp, 2008).

Open and Closed-ended Questions as Counseling Skills

Richardson (n.d.) contends open-ended questions "develop trust, are perceived as less threatening, (and) allow an unrestrained or free response" (para.2) and closed-ended questions require less time and, if not asked appropriately can be threatening. Additionally, the latter type can be misleading and discourage disclosure (Richardson, n.d.).

Hiebert and Johnson (1994) believe an essential skill for counselors is to have the ability to "cognitively organize client information and relate it to a broad theoretical knowledge base" (para. 1). I believe open and closed-ended questions contribute to this ability to, in essence, piece it all together to form a cohesive conceptualization of the client.

Hiebert and Johnson (1994) find a relationship between how well counselors understand the affect of counseling skills on client change and the counselor's ability to use effective skills when gathering information on clients. Extending these findings to this classroom, I believe it is important to learn to use these skills, but also when, how, and why we use them, as well as their affect on clients. Both types of questions contribute to the counselor's specific understanding of the client's primary issues and needs (Knapp, 2007).


Hiebert, B., & Johnson, P. (1994, April 4-8). Changes in counseling skills and cgnitive structures of counselor trainees. Speech presented at Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, LA.

Knapp, H. (2007). Therapeutic communication: Developing professional skills. Los Angeles: Sage Publications.

Richardson, J. V. (n.d.). Open versus Closed Ended Questions. University of California, Los Angeles: Information Studies. Retrieved July 1, 2012, from

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