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Circular Questioning Examples: Structural Family Systems Techniques

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5 Circular Questioning Examples: Structural Family Systems Techniques

Imagine it's the end of your first session with a family, and you look back on your notes and get the idea that the family is here because their child "is depressed and it all started a few years ago".

Would you be content with that, probably? definitely? It's hard to know for sure, obviously, but what if instead when you looked back at your notes and you actually saw something like:

“When Mom and Dad fight, Andi seems to behave in a very depressed manner, retreating to their bedroom which makes Mom and Dad feel very concerned, so they turn their focus to Andi to see what's wrong and to try coax them out of their room. Mom and Dad realize that when they do that their fighting stops, but Mom remains worried about Andi for days or weeks and during that time Dad seems to work more and for longer hours which actually starts a lot of conflict between Mom and Dad."

That's quite the difference.

Circular questioning is a powerful tool in the field of Structural Family Systems Therapy and systemic counselling. It's a method that allows therapists to explore the complex family dynamics within a family system, uncovering underlying patterns of interaction around the problem, the family's beliefs, and relationship dynamics. In this post, we'll delve into the concept of circular questioning, and provide you with some very practical examples that can be applied in initial family therapy sessions, so that you're on your way to getting answers like this.

More Structural Family Systems Techniques

Please check out my other posts on Circular Questioning and there's even a mini-course on Circular Questioning which you can grab here for only $9 - and you'll get access to the full video and all my circular questions on a pdf. (I still take a printout of that into my first sessions)

Circular questioning is an approach to interviewing unique to systemic therapy, and one of its effects is that it encourages family members to view themselves in relation to others and generate some empathy. The very nature of the questions makes a family member consider how they react or someone else reacts to another. Unlike linear questioning, which focuses on cause-and-effect relationships, circular questioning emphasizes the interrelatedness of behaviors within the family system. It helps families develop an awareness of the reciprocal nature of their interactions.

History Of Circular Questioning.

The concept of circularity has been widely discussed in family therapy literature since we started thinking about families as being part of an interconnected web of relationships that we call family systems. The Milan Group introduced the circular interview as a means for conducting a systemic investigation of the changes and differences in family relationships, which might support and promote dysfunctional interactions or symptoms in the family (Palazzoli Selvini et al., 1980). They realized that this approach not only serves as a useful tool for gathering information suited to the generation of hypotheses and interventions but as we said above, also provides the family with an opportunity to view itself systemically. They were one of the first to wonder if developing an awareness of the reciprocal interrelatedness of behaviors may, in and of itself, promote significant spontaneous change (Penn, 1982; Palazzoli Selvini et al., 1980; Tomm, 1984b).

Why Use Circular Questioning in Structural Family Systems Therapy?

Circular questioning is particularly effective in understanding the presenting problem and its impact on the family. By asking questions that explore how family members perceive and react to the problem, therapists can gain insights into the family's dynamics, coping strategies, and underlying beliefs.

Namely -we want to find the pattern, the circular pattern of interactions around the problem. Like the one the introduction that begins and ends with Mom and Dad fighting.

If you're not convinced yet to try circular questioning, here are some key benefits:

Uncovering Hidden Dynamics: Circular questions reveal the hidden connections between family members, helping therapists identify dysfunctional patterns. Would we know Andi was acting more depressed when Mom and Dad were fighting with out it? Probably at some point, but it's much more useful to have upfront.

Promoting Systemic Thinking: It encourages family members to think systemically, recognizing how their behaviors affect one another. I don't know about you but I get a lot of 'fix my kid' calls, it just seems to be the nature of our culture at the moment, that we are focused on individuals fixing their individual problems with individual therapists. It's impossible to separate out a child from the system - they are far too reliant on their caregivers to not be influenced by them. So the 'fix my kid' approach is just not helping anyone.

Facilitating Change: By providing new contextual information, circular questioning can lead to new understandings and opportunities for change. We can ask questions that are as simple as "What have you tried in the past that didn't work?" as part of our family systems repertoire which is going to be useful information. (FYI it's circular because it links the past to the present)

5 Powerful Circular Questions for Initial Structural Family Therapy Sessions... (well actually is more like 25)

Here are some systemic questions you can start to use in your sessions, if you're an associate, please check with your supervisor to make sure it's appropriate and going to be helpful to your clients.

Understanding the Problem:

In structural family systems therapy, we want to very clearly identify the problem, and we want to know what that is in the first session, and we want the entire family to agree. This is because we deal with one thing at a time, and family work has a tendency to get unfocused pretty quickly with so many people in the room.

  • "I would like to know from each of you what you think is the problem in the family now?"
  • "I would like to know from each of you what concerns you have that brought you to family therapy?"
  • "I want to hear from all of you what you want my help with"

If everyone has different answers, well, you've got some more digging to do, and if everyone agrees right off the bat, I'm jealous.

Exploring Individual Impact:

My mantra and I hope this becomes your mantra too, is "And then what?".

  • "How does it impact you when [presenting problem] happens? What do you then? And then what?
  • "How do you feel when [presenting problem] occurs, and what do you do in response? What do you then? And then what?"
  • "What do you notice about everyone else's behavior when [presenting problem] occurs? Who does what? And then what do they do? ... and where is _____ when they do that? And then what?"

Identifying Interaction Patterns:

  • "Can you describe a recent situation where the problem was evident, and tell me what was going on in the family before it happened?"
  • "Who agrees with that?"
  • "What happens to your relationship with ____ after [presenting problem]" ie What happens in your relationship with your daughter after they have run away and returned home"
  • "Who is impacted most by [presenting problem] ... then who? then who?"

Investigating Changes Over Time:

  • "Has it always been like this?"
  • "When do you think it changed? Who agrees?"
  • "Can anyone think of any specific events or situations that were going on back then?"
  • "Has the family been --- closer or more distant -- since [presenting problem started] You could replace it with anything - fighting more or less / spent more time together or less'. Get creative and tie it in with what you've heard so far.

Assessing Family Relationships:

  • "Who seems to be most affected by the [presenting problem], and in what ways?"
  • "Who is most similar to [the IP]?"
  • "Who is most opposite to [the IP]?"
  • "Who turns to who for help?"

These circular questioning examples provide a practical starting point for you if you're a newer therapist looking to enhance your family therapy skills and practice. By understanding and applying these questions, you can foster a more collaborative and insightful therapeutic process, and get an incredible amount of information from the family.

If you're a family therapist looking to deepen your understanding of circular questioning, these examples offer a valuable resource, and we have more for you if you follow this link.


What are the differences between circular questioning and other forms of questioning?

Circular questioning is a unique approach to inquiry that is particularly useful in systemic therapies like family therapy. It differs from other forms of questioning in several key ways:

Focus on Relationships: Unlike linear questioning, which often focuses on individual experiences and cause-effect relationships, circular questioning emphasizes the interconnectedness of a client within a system (like a family). It seeks to understand how each member's behaviors and experiences relate to and impact one another.

Exploration of Patterns: Circular questioning is designed to uncover patterns of interaction and behavior within a system. Instead of seeking a single 'correct' answer, it encourages multiple perspectives and explores how these patterns change over time.

Promotion of Self-Reflection: Circular questions often prompt individuals to engage in some reflection on their own behaviors and the behaviors of others in new ways. This can lead to increased self-awareness and shifts in understanding that can be transformative.

Systemic Change: By highlighting the interconnectedness of individuals within a system and promoting self-reflection, circular questioning can lead to systemic change. As individuals gain new insights and shift their behaviors, these changes can ripple out to affect the entire system.

Neutrality: Circular questioning maintains a neutral stance, avoiding blame or judgment. This can help create a safe space for individuals to share their experiences and perspectives.

Hypothesis Testing: In the context of therapy, circular questions are often used to test hypotheses about the family system. The therapist uses the responses to these questions to refine their understanding of the system and its dynamics.




References - some light reading for you: 

Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an ecology of mind. New York: Ballantine.

Bateson, G. (1979). Mind and nature: A necessary unity. New York: Dutton.

Hoffman, L. (1981). Foundations of Family Therapy. New York: Basic Books.

Keeney, B. (1983). Aesthetics of Change. New York: Guilford Press.

Keeney, B. (1985). The Aesthetics of Change. New York: Guilford Press.

Papp, P. (1983). The Process of Change. New York: Guilford Press.

Penn, P. (1982). Circular Questioning. Family Process, 21, 267-280.

Palazzoli Selvini, M., Boscolo, L., Cecchin, G., & Prata, G. (1978a). Paradox and Counterparadox. New York: Jason Aronson.

Palazzoli Selvini, M., Boscolo, L., Cecchin, G., & Prata, G. (1980). Hypothesizing-Circularity-Neutrality: Three Guidelines for the Conductor of the Session. Family Process, 19, 3-12.

Tomm, K. (1984a). One Perspective on the Milan Systemic Approach. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 10, 45-65.

Tomm, K. (1984b). Interventive Interviewing: Part II. Reflexive Questioning as a Means to Enable Self-Healing. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 10, 167-183.




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