Questioning Questions

By Ann Weiser Cornell, PhD

This article originally appeared in the March 2001 issue of The Focusing Connection.

Recently my 81-year-old mother was telling me about the exploits of a friend of hers. I wasn’t listening attentively (sorry, Mom!), and I missed the name of the friend—though I knew she’d said it. “Excuse me, Mom,” I said. “Who are you talking about?” She went blank. “I know I said her name a minute ago,” she told me, “but I couldn’t tell it to you now to save my life.”

People who are 81 tend to assume that any memory lapse is a problem of aging. But because I’ve been thinking about the effect of questions, I noticed something else about that incident: her memory had been working fine until I asked her a direct question. Could it have been the question that stopped her process?

I had occasion to test this hypothesis a few weeks later when I was talking to a friend about a musical event I had missed. “What songs were played?” I asked. “You know,” he said, “when you ask me, I can’t think of any.” “OK,” I said, “let’s try it another way. I bet they played a lot of good songs.” “Yes,” he said—and immediately started naming them.

The question is this: Are questions the best way of facilitating inner experience in another person (and in one’s self)? My answer: in most cases, no.

Of course, many excellent Focusing guides do use questions, and people have wonderful and profound sessions with them. In questioning questions, I do not mean to question the wisdom or skill of guides who use them. On the contrary, my admiration for such people (Gene Gendlin is one) is even greater, because I am aware of what remarkable Presence they must have, to counteract the difficulties of questions.

Let me also say that I am profoundly convinced that Presence is more important than any technique, including the linguistic distinctions which I will make in this article. As Gendlin says in his paper “The Small Steps…” (1989): “all that is needed… is to be a human being, with another human being.” Even using the most facilitative linguistic forms will be fruitless if one is not first able to be present to the other, as a person who is there, willing to trust the process and follow where it goes, willing to take back “brilliant” moves which did not happen to be helpful to this real person in front of us.

Having said this, I want to discuss the three main reasons why I prefer to use suggestions rather than questions when facilitating inner experiencing (Focusing) in another person (and in myself).

To summarize:

(1) Questions are conversationally strong, that is, demanding. (I will say what this means in a sociolinguistic context.) Because of this, questions (a) give fewer choices, (b) are difficult to refuse, and (c) can be experienced as intrusive.

(2) Questions tend to draw attention to the questioner and to highlight the interpersonal relationship between the questioner and the questionee.

(3) Asking a question as a way to facilitate a process is cognitively complex, that is, it requires more steps to be performed internally, and therefore the process which is being facilitated is less supported and more liable to breakdown. The commonest types of breakdown are (a) questions being answered from the head, and (b) questions being answered with “I don’t know,” “Nothing,” etc.

I will discuss each of these more fully.

Questions are conversationally “strong”

In 1991 I was watching a session between a student guide and a new Focuser. At a number of places, the guide asked questions, and it seemed that the questions were more difficult and less facilitative for the beginner than the corresponding suggestions would have been.

For example, the guide asked: “What are you feeling there, in the middle of your body?” and “What’s the quality of that tightness?” rather than saying: “Notice what you’re feeling there, in the middle of your body,” and “Maybe you could sense the quality of that tightness.”

After the session, I invited the guide to sense into her reason for asking questions in preference to making suggestions. She responded that she had a feeling that questions were more tentative, and therefore offered the Focuser more choices. Somehow I knew that was wrong; that in fact, questions close down choices. But I didn’t know how I knew.

Then I remembered a whole body of research from my days as a student and teacher of linguistics. Two researchers from the University of California at Irvine, Harvey Sacks and Emanuel Schegloff, had studied turn-taking in all sorts of conversation, from job interviews to friends chatting on the phone. They described a conversational move as “strong” if it constrains (limits) the conversational choices of the next speaker. They discovered that the quintessential strong conversational move is a question.

Contrary to popular belief, questions are not more tentative and they do not offer the other person more choices. In fact, a question at any point in a conversation strikingly narrows the conversational options of the other person. Even not answering the question is not really a choice, because any kind of non-answer will be interpreted (in a process Sacks and Schegloff call “strong inference”) as a refusal or inability to answer the question, and the other parties to the conversation have a right to draw conclusions about why.

Why is it rude to ask a person about their sexual habits or their age or how much money they make? Not only because it’s none of our business, but also because asking a question puts them “on the spot,” makes whatever they say next somehow “about” the question.

A: “How old are you?”
B: “It’s a lovely day.”
A: “Your age is nothing to be ashamed of!”

You may feel that we have strayed far from the gentle mood of a Focusing session, where questions are framed with a quiet voice and a mood of permission to answer or not. Indeed. But tone and permission can only mitigate the effect of questions, not remove it entirely. It is the question form which carries the effect, not (only) the intention of the speaker. Because questions are conversationally strong, they have a demanding effect. They place the questioner in a subtly one-up position. They narrow the options of the one questioned to those defined by the questioner.

If this were the only problem with questions, surely we could get around it. But there is more.

Questions tend to draw attention to the questioner, and to highlight the interpersonal interaction.

I first noticed this effect when I was teaching listening in Path to Lasting Change, Part One classes. I always encourage beginning Focusers to stay in touch with their inner process and resonate the listener’s words in there. The Focuser speaks, the listener takes in and then says back what the Focuser said, sometimes the exact words, sometimes summarizing or saying the essence or just the feeling words. But unlike in a regular conversation, the two are not looking at each other. The Focuser typically closes his or her eyes, to pay better attention inwardly. It’s especially important for beginning Focusers to learn that they can concentrate on their inner process rather than trying to ‘take care of’ the listener.

I noticed that when the listener reflected the Focuser’s words as a statement, with falling voice at the end, the Focuser’s attention tended to stay inside, with their own process. But uncertain listeners tended to raise their voices at the end of sentences, as if asking the Focuser, “Is that right?” When they heard the questioning voice (even if the words were in the form of a statement), their awareness tended to move away from their inner process and out toward the listener. At these moments, the Focuser would often open their eyes and look up as if answering the listener.

Focuser: “I’m sensing this heavy place is sad.”
Listener: “You’re sensing that heavy place is sad.”
Listener: “You’re sensing that heavy place is sad?”

Further observations showed me that the same is true of questions vs. suggestions in guiding. When asked a question (eg “How would you describe it?”), Focusers tend to answer the guide, as if the guide is asking for themselves. On the other hand, a guiding suggestion to sense inwardly (“You might sense how you would describe it.”) facilitates the Focuser’s attention to stay inward.

Asking a question as a way to facilitate a process is cognitively complex.

When I was about 13 years old, I went to dinner at the home of a friend whose parents had a different cultural background than mine. At one point the father, sitting at the other end of the table, asked me, “Ann, would you like some more spaghetti?” The spaghetti bowl was sitting near me on the table. I was full, so I answered politely (I thought), “No thank you.” My friend nudged me with her elbow. “What is it?” I whispered, mystified. “He wants you to pass him the spaghetti,” she whispered firecely.

This social faux pas illustrates what I mean when I say that asking a question as a way to facilitate a process is cognitively complex. Because I wasn’t asked directly, “Please pass the spaghetti,” I needed to go through a series of steps: (1) He is asking if I want more spaghetti, (2) the bowl is near me, and (3) perhaps he wants more. I didn’t make the connections, and the process broke down.

The more steps there are, the more possibilities for breakdown. When a question is used in a Focusing session, and what is hoped is that the Focuser will access inner experience, this is cognitively complex and liable to breakdown in a very similar way to the “spaghetti” incident.

A question is a request for information. As such, it assumes that the information is there to be given. When the information is not there, the “questionee” must go searching for it.

Q: “What time is it?”
A: “Wait, I need to find my watch.”

But, because questions are demanding (see #1 above), the search must be as brief as possible. Also, if there are several places to search in, or several ways to search, the question gives no help as to which one to choose. Which makes them ideal for testing whether a student has achieved a competence.

Q: “What’s the square root of thirty-seven?”
A: “I missed the class where we learned how to do that.”

So the question, “What does that heaviness seem to want you to know?” implies a process, but it does not actually facilitate one. The person must already know how to connect in a gentle way with the “heaviness” and sense into it. They must already know that this is a process that takes time, and they must be willing to take the time despite the demanding nature of the question form. This is a lot to expect, especially from an inexperienced Focuser.

There are two corollaries to this point. The first is that questions tend to be answered in the head, as many people have pointed out. Because questions are demanding and imply that the answer should be accessible, the person questioned will tend to look in the place where answers are stored when already known: the head.

Questions tend to be answered in the head because the question merely asks for information—it does not facilitate a process of accessing the information. The person who is asked the question has to figure out for themselves how to access the requested information. Because the head-process is faster than the body-process, the person will first attempt to access the information in the fastest place, the head. Some Focusing teachers have solved this problem by teaching Focusers to answer questions from the body and not from the head, and this is commendable. However, it is still a lot of extra work—like teaching people to clean up a mess rather than showing them how not to make the mess in the first place.

The second corollary is that questions (compared with suggestions) will tend to result in a higher percentage of answers like “I don’t know” or “Nothing.” Again, this is because, although the guide is intending to facilitate a process, the question actually does not support a process which may take time. Instead, the implication of the question form is that the answer should be already there, available to be given back. When it is not there, the person, especially someone not trained in Focusing, will tend to report, “Not there.” They have looked, and found nothing, and reported that. They are not being resistant—they have done exactly what was requested!

Guide: “And what do you feel in your body as you think of that issue?”
Focuser: “Nothing.”
Guide: “Take a little more time, if that’s OK—let the issue be here… notice what comes in your body…”
Focuser: “I start to feel a tightness…”

About suggestions

If questions are not the most elegant way to facilitate a process, what is? I propose suggestions.

Compare the following:
Question: “What does that heaviness want you to know?”
Suggestion: “You might take your time to be with that heaviness and sense what it wants you to know.”

In contrast to the question, the suggestion “You might take your time to be with that heaviness and sense what it wants you to know” is relaxing and supportive because it supports the Focuser through each step of the whole complex process: to take time, to be with, and to sense for something.

Suggestions are both more direct and more facilitative, because they reduce the amount of extra work that the Focuser needs to do. This is particularly important for people who are new to Focusing. As a full-time Focusing teacher, I give many first sessions, so the problems with questions loom large for me. People who are being guided as a way to show them Focusing can be significantly supported in this process by receiving suggestions rather than questions.

The primary objection I have heard to suggestions is that they seem like “giving orders.” I prefer to think of them as “invitations” or “offers.” I encourage the use of “cushions,” which are phrases expressing the invitational nature of the suggestion.

“You might…”
“See if it would be OK to…”
“See if it would feel right to…”
“Take some time to…”

I would recommend avoiding, however, cushioning phrases which turn the suggestion into a question, such as:

“Would it be OK to…?”
“Can you…?”
“Could you…?”

Although they cushion, they are still questions, and share the problems of questions that we have seen.

When to use questions

Do I avoid all questions? Not at all! I use questions when (1) I want to connect interpersonally (usually before or after a Focusing process), and (2) when I believe the information requested is there, ready to be reported.

Focuser: “That part feels done, I’m not sure what to do.”
Guide: “Are you still wanting to explore the connection with your roommate?”
Focuser: “Yes, let’s do that.”

So you still want to ask questions…

When I shared the thesis of this article with the Focusing Discussion List last year, I was surprised by the number of Focusing guides who defended their practice of asking questions. This led me to some further thoughts.

I do believe that questions have more of a place in therapy than they do in non-therapy Focusing. Because questions highlight the interpersonal relationship, they are more appropriate for the therapist/client relationship than they are for a guiding relationship (including between peers in partnerships). So perhaps it is the fact that I am not a therapist, and my Focusing teaching is primarily aimed at getting people into peer Focusing partnerships, that has led me to such a clear stance on questions.

I also find that questions are much more problematic for a person who has never focused before than for a person who knows how to do Focusing. If a person knows how to do Focusing, then their reactions to questions will probably be more a matter of personal preference than actual interference with their process. But even experienced Focusers can be interrupted by questions. A friend of mine, well trained in Focusing, had these reactions to a recent session with a guide who questioned: “I felt put on the spot, pressured to come up with the answer. Like he knows something I don’t, and I’m supposed to guess what it is.”

I had a therapist who asked me questions when she intended to facilitate process. Every time she said something like, “How does that feel now in your body?”, I forgave her, translated what she said, and sensed into my body. But there was always a little pang, a little bump. Yes, I could do it myself. But how nice it would have been to just sink deep, undistracted, invited by the words of the guide into gentle and intimate relationship with my own being.

This article appears in The Radical Acceptance of Everything, by Ann Weiser Cornell, PhD and featuring Barbara McGavin (Calluna Press; 2005). Learn more about this book.