The biblical counseling center where I serve provides training for those interested in providing intensive biblical discipleship counseling. In one module, our students are taught the nuts and bolts of how to conduct a biblical counseling session. They learn that we begin a counseling session by gathering data and getting information from the counselee. Before we can give any counsel, we must know the issues the counselee wants or needs to address (Proverbs 18:13, 15, 17). Our counselees often share their respectable problem first. They want to know if we are trustworthy and knowledgeable before they bring the real problem to the table. The respectable problem and the “real” problem are not always one and the same!
This is why one of the best skills a new biblical counselor can cultivate is to learn how to ask good questions. The most effective and productive kinds of questions in biblical counseling are those aimed straight to the heart of the matter. We must expose a heart that is, by nature, secretive and deceptive (Jeremiah 17:9). Questions aid the counselee in the process of biblical change and will often decrease the time a counselee needs to spend in a formal counseling relationship.
Asking the kinds of questions that elicit heart-level responses is hard work! It takes effort to come up with good questions that will cause the counselee to think. Cultivating this skill will cause the counselor to think as well. I strongly believe that asking good questions is at the center of successful biblical counseling. I have found that the asking of good questions has become a lost art.
Some common mistakes we make are:
- Making statements and putting a question mark at the end of them
- Asking “why” questions
- Asking questions that appeal to the emotional level
Questions are a Form of Communication
Good communication is comprised of the giving and receiving of information. Our goal is to be good communicators for the benefit of those we counsel and for the glory of God. I would say that asking questions is a foundation of good communication. In fact, I would go one step further and say that asking good questions is the cornerstone of that foundation.
We ask heart-level questions because this type of probing question accomplishes two things: it provides us with information and it causes the counselee to think instead of just emoting. Good questions may prick the conscience of the counselee, revealing areas of self-deception, rationalization, or justification they were previously unaware of.
What Makes a Good Question Good?
The goal of asking questions is to gain information about the counselee’s life and the problem as they see it. Below are some benefits of asking good questions in a biblical counseling session:
- Effective questions encourage a person to engage their brain and come up with an answer outside of their emotions. In our culture, thoughts and beliefs are consistently mislabeled as feelings. Good questions elicit a thoughtful response rather than one that is purely emotional, such as “I feel I am not being respected,” or “I feel this is unfair,” or “I feel you don’t love/respect/understand me.”
- Effective questions reveal something about what is going on in the thoughts and beliefs of the inner man, which is important because our goal is to get to the heart of a person.
- Effective questions will help the counselee understand that their thoughts about the person or issue (i.e. the values and judgments they have made about that person or situation) have created an emotional response, such as sorrow, anger, or self-pity.
- Effective questions will expose the belief system of the counselee, which is important because we act upon what we believe to be true. They will also expose the desires of the counselee. We want to know the counselee’s hopes and dreams because the Bible tells us that where our treasure is, our heart is also (Matthew 6:21)!
- Effective questions will expose inconsistencies in what a counselee says he believes and what he does. A man may say he believes divorce is wrong, but also say he has peace about leaving his wife and family.
- Good questions will lead into the core issues of why someone is coming for counseling. They provoke thinking and reasoning within the heart of a person.
- Effective questions should direct the counselee toward discerning the truth about themselves and their circumstances. When such questions are asked, we will learn undiscovered facts; the things the counselee wants us to know but in some cases is afraid to tell us.
- Effective questions will reveal the hidden motives of the heart and will reveal things that may even be hidden from the counselee, due to the deceitfulness of their own heart. They will be used by the Holy Spirit to produce heart conviction and a sense of personal responsibility within the counselee. Therefore, we don’t simply tell the counselee what sin issues we see in them. Telling someone their sin shifts the responsibility for recognition from them to you. They may become defensive, disagree with your opinion, blame shift, or disregard your conclusion. But questions aimed at the heart of the counselee results in conviction. Grace abounds as they come to a biblical conclusion about their sin and recognize their responsibility in the situation.
So ask good questions, but be careful not to make your time with the person across the table an inquisition. Your counselee is looking for someone with compassion and a heart that longs to minister to their soul. Remember that the Holy Spirit is the ultimate counselor, and that Jesus was the ultimate question-asker. Spend time in the Gospels and learn how Jesus asked questions. It is a worthy exercise for new or experienced biblical counselors.
Questions for Reflection
Have you made it a goal to learn to ask heart-level questions in your counseling sessions? Are you willing to take a critical look at how you currently interact with your counselees in this important area of biblical counseling?