Ever wonder (feel frustrated or confused by) why your therapist doesn't answer your questions? Or why they answer your questions with a question? What's the deal? More importantly, what's the point? Here are 5 reasons why your therapist may delay--or defer--answering questions in psychotherapy, right from the hors--err--shrinks' mouth!
(You can also use the direction buttons to look at a bonus video on how therapists may choose to answer a question.)
Transparency and Education is important
I strongly believe that playing with questions in psychotherapy is an important part of the work, but I also think that without some transparency as to why that is important, people can feel confused or turned off.
Exploring why our clients ask us certain questions should be a collaborative and exploratory process, not a "cat and mouse" game. If we're clear as to why we therapists are doing this, it might help you sit with the ambiguity and anxiety those moments can elicit.
Hopefully this post will some light on how we (shrinks) think about this.
why don't therapists answer questions directly?
1. We are trying to understand your question
Sometimes people ask us questions--about ourselves, about the therapy, about what they should do in a given situation--and we respond by asking questions around the question. We do this in order to sharpen your question and make it more clear. This helps draw out other questions and concerns you may not have verbalized, but which are implicit in the original question.
If we can clarify the nature of the question, then we can be in a position of giving you an honest and straightforward answer (surprise!). This is related to the second reason we don't answer questions directly.
2. We want to know the "Question behind the Question"
When people ask us more personal questions, such as are you married, have you ever had this problem, where do you live, etc, we have a sense that the question isn't really or fully about that question. Rather, the question may be about a much deeper issue, such as
- "Can you relate to me?"
- "Can you understand what I am going through?"
- "Will you get me in a really deep way?"
- "I'm anxious that you won't be able to understand me."
- "Will you like me?"
- "I'm worried that if we don't have some common ground, you're going to reject me."
In psychotherapy, we want to get at the question behind the question, because it can help us understand what really worries you. If we can understand what really worries you, we can
ultimately make the therapy more effective and more helpful.
3. We want to teach you "how to fish"
There's that old saying--Give someone a fish, they eat for a day. Teach someone how to fish, they eat for a lifetime.
Sometimes when patient's ask us questions, they want an answer right away. They want to fix the problem, and solve it as soon as possible--Right here, right now. Let's take a moment and think about other relationships we might look to for help.
We might ask our friends, our family members and loved ones, for advice. Sometimes we follow that advice, maybe, only to realize we still have that problem further down the line. Or we don't actually follow their advice, and so find ourselves dealing with the same problem.
In order to help you learn how to feed yourself, we will push you to really think through the question. Sometimes the question itself is part of the problem. Maybe you're not asking the right questions, and we want to help you ask much deeper questions about the problem.
We want to teach you to fish.
We want to help you eat for a lifetime. We want to help you learn how to discover long-term solutions.
4. We may not be comfortable with your question (we'll let you
Sometimes therapists aren't comfortable answering certain questions. They may hit too close to home, or trying to think about how to best answer them may distract us from focusing on you.
A good therapist will be honest and let you know that. He or she might say "You know what, I understand there may be reasons why you're asking me this question, and we should certainly spend some time talking about what those reasons are. But, right now I don't feel comfortable answering that question."
5. We want to focus on you
We want to place the focus on you, and at most, our relationship. Our interaction and the relationship you form with us is a great source of information. But ultimately, the tilt of any therapy should be on you. You are the one we will have made a commitment to in making change. We don't want to make it about us. We usually have our own therapist after all!
How do therapists answer questions?
Having reviewed these 5 reasons why therapists may not answer your questions, let’s talk a little bit about how therapists may answer your questions.
1. “Don’t answer, ask questions”
Some therapists may not answer your questions at all, and notice what it is you do when placed in that ambiguous space. If you can allow yourself to sit with that discomfort, you give yourself and your therapist access to a lot of potentially useful information.
Specifically, your reactions give the therapist a sense of how it is that you solve and address problems. When you are stressed, do you become angry, anxious, overwhelmed, do you withdraw or become more assertive, etc.
One thing that happens when you respond in a state of duress, is that it activates your automatic thoughts, associations, and beliefs in relation to the therapist.
2. “Answer first, ask questions later”
Some therapists notice that this stance can make you feel too unsettled and uncomfortable, and so choose to answer the question first. Later on they may come back and ask some more exploratory questions, to try to get at what may have been bothering you to begin with.
Answering the question first may give you the lifeline you need to manage your anxiety in the moment, with the understanding that the therapist may express curiosity about why you asked that question at this particular point in time.
3. “Ask questions first, answer later”
Other therapists may say
“You know, I’m not going to answer that question right now. I think if we answer the question directly, we may not come to understand your problem more intimately. So I’m going to defer answering that question for now. I know that might make you uncomfortable, but let’s talk more about that.”
This is a bit of a trade-off between #1 and #2. It verbalizes exactly what the therapist is doing, why they are doing it, and what they hope the outcome will be. It also acknowledges that this may be an uncomfortable experience for you. Patients often resonate with this approach because it feels more like an invitation to explore, an agreement to work together toward shared understanding. And with that understanding, empower the work.
A therapist choosing to go the "Don't answer, ask questions" may say something very similar in order to minimize your anxiety, but in the end, leave their answer to the question open. A therapist choosing to "Ask questions first, answer later," however, will then go back to your original question and, well, give up the goods. Here the therapist is honoring their word, and deciding to be more transparent with you, as initially agreed.
This brings us to the last option a therapist can use in how they respond to your question. It is an ancient and time honored technique known as...
4. "Answer the damn question."
Yes, this is a thing! We just answer questions sometimes. Depends on the question.
I hope these five "why's" and four "how's" help shed some light on how therapists respond to questions in psychotherapy. It is important to know what style feels more comfortable to you, what style makes you more uncomfortable, and what style are you open to being comfortable with being uncomfortable.
What I mean is that how you relate to your therapist exploring your questions should be like therapy in general. Therapy is supposed to bring you out of your comfort zone, and in so doing, expand it. And that, in and of itself, is one big reason why we answer a question, with a question.