Counsellors should be aware that the questioning methods they use may lead to complexities and different outcomes when working with people with intellectual disability. Unnecessarily complex questions can create confusion and embarrassment for clients. It is possible that these same clients may have the ability to answer questions well, if the questions are carefully worded.

Developing a high level of self awareness in questioning is a key strategy in this counselling context. Careful use of questioning can ease confusion and embarrassment; clarify problems, goals and intentions; and provide clients with increased opportunity to be heard as participants in meaningful conversations.

These points may be helpful when thinking about questioning in counselling with people with intellectual disability:

  • Keep questions of choice simple. If you are asking a person about their preference, an outcome, or an action, pose no more than two options in one sentence. For example, say ‘Would you like to stay home or go out tomorrow?’ rather than ‘Would you like to stay home or go out tomorrow, or just go out for a little while?’ 
  • Avoid double-barrelled questions (asking two questions about different subjects in one sentence). For example, don’t say ‘How do you feel about going out today and going in the taxi?. Instead, ask ‘How do you feel about going out today?’, and then ask about the taxi separately 
  • Avoid the use of negative and double-negative questions. These can be difficult for people to interpret and respond to, because a ‘yes’ response to a negative question denies the proposition of the question rather than affirming it 
    • Example of a negative question: ‘Didn’t you see your mum last night?’ (If the response is yes, it means the person did not see their mum). Instead, ask: ‘Did you see your mum last night?’ 
    • Example of a double-negative question: ‘Didn’t you not hear what the train guard said?’ (this type of question can make it difficult for the person to know how to respond – is their answer going to negate or affirm the proposition?). Instead, ask: ‘Did you hear what the train guard said?’ or ‘What did the train guard say?’ or ‘Did you hear the train guard say anything?’ 
  • Communicate in short sentences, not paragraphs, and break questions down to manageable sizes with one main idea 
  • Use plain, simple English 
  • If you falter in forming a clear question, apologise and try again. Say: ‘Sorry, that was confusing, let me start again’. Or, reset the question: ‘Can we go back to the part where you talked about ...’ 
  • Signpost the conversation: If the conversation gets confused or confusing for either participant and you want to start over, make this explicit. Say that you are starting over
  • Use a combination of open and closed questions. Begin with an open question, then ask closed questions to confirm details or clarify meaning. Example of an open question: ‘Would you like to tell me about your family?’; example of a closed question: ‘And do you have an uncle?’.
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