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Using Circular Questioning in Family Therapy: Techniques and Tips

family systems Mar 09, 2023
Circular Questioning In Your First Family Therapy Session

How To Use Circular Questioning in Family Systems Therapy:

If we've not me, I"m Oliver, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California and I'm a family systems therapist, clinical supervisor and former Clinical Director.  c

In family sessions, communication is key to solving problems and improving relationships. Circular questioning is one technique used to help individuals understand the dynamics within their family system. This technique involves asking open-ended questions that encourage reflection, promote empathy, and increase understanding of family dynamics. Most importantly for clinicians, circular questioning helps you understand patterns of interaction that promote or continue the symptoms.

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Effective communication is critical to healthy family functioning, but it is not always easy to achieve. Family conflicts, communication breakdowns, and misunderstandings are common issues that can cause significant stress and tension within the family system. However, by implementing circular questioning in family sessions, individuals can gain insight into their behavior and the behavior of others, leading to improved communication and relationships.

Find out more in the video here or in the course on My People Patterns

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how to use circular questioning

Circular Questioning In The First Sessions - online course

To find the full video along with PDF handouts with a PDF of circular questioning examples that I STILL take into family sessions with me here- it's available for $8.99.  Click here to find more

Benefits of Circular Questioning in Family Sessions

Encourages reflection: Circular questioning encourages individuals to reflect on their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. By asking open-ended questions, individuals are prompted to think more deeply about their experiences and perspectives. This can help them understand their behavior and how it affects others in the family system.

It increases understanding of family dynamics: Circular questioning can also help individuals better understand the dynamics within their family system. By asking questions about specific situations and interactions, individuals can identify patterns and behaviors contributing to family conflicts or other problems. This increased understanding can lead to more effective problem-solving and improved relationships.

Promotes empathy Circular questioning encourages individuals to consider the perspectives and experiences of others in the family system, circular questioning can promote empathy. This can help individuals develop a greater understanding and appreciation for the experiences and feelings of others, leading to improved communication and relationships.

Examples of Circular Questioning in Systemic Family Sessions

1 "What happens when..." 

This type of questioning encourages individuals to reflect on their behavior and the behavior of others in specific situations. For example, "What happens when your partner doesn't respond to your apology?" This question encourages reflection on the impact of specific behaviors on the family system and can lead to improved understanding and problem-solving.

2. "What happens then?"

Circular questioning encourages the family to think systemically - often families come to treatment with a linear thought pattern, which is actually how we all think.

Linear thinking is - Jimmy is struggling at school, so we need to help him focus"

Circular thinking is more like "What is going on at home, between Mom and Dad that might be impacting Jimmy's sleep so that he can't concentrate at school?"  

"What happens next" is a way of finding out the links in behaviors and in relationships - "So Jimmy goes to be and slams his door, what happens next?"

 3. "How Do You Explain that?"

This type of questioning encourages individuals to reflect on the behaviors of people in their family, and promotes reflection of dynamics. I call this 'zooming out' - and tell families we are putting on our lab coats, becoming scientists who are watching and studying our own behaviors. 

How To Use Circular Questioning In The First Family Therapy Session

I use circular questioning in the first sessions to establish a systemic interaction pattern in the family that occurs around the symptoms. This gives me a cycle of interaction AND ALSO a plan of how to interrupt the cycle so the symptom stops. Watch the video for more!

Circular Questioning In Sessions

Circular questioning is a powerful tool for improving communication and understanding in family systems. By asking open-ended questions that encourage reflection, promote empathy, and increase understanding of family dynamics, individuals can gain insight into their own behavior and the behavior of others. By implementing circular questioning effectively and avoiding common mistakes, individuals can promote improved communication, problem-solving, and relationships within the family system.

Structural Family Therapy Interventions and Circular Questioning


 Frequently Asked Questions:

What is circular questioning in systemic family therapy?

Circular questioning in family therapy is a way of asking questions that helps families understand how their actions and reactions affect each other. It's not about pointing fingers or finding fault, but about revealing the hidden patterns and cycles that keep problems going.

What is the purpose of circular questions?

The goal is to get everyone in the family thinking about how they're contributing to the situation, not just blaming someone else. By seeing how their own actions trigger others, families can start to break unhealthy patterns and find new ways to communicate and resolve conflict. Imagine a family caught in a constant loop of arguing, a non systemic therapist might ask, "Who started the fight?" But a systemic therapist, using circular questioning would ask something like, "When things get tense, what usually happens first? How do each other's words and actions change? What happens next? Who does what then?"

Who developed circular questioning?

Circular questioning in systemic family therapy is credited to a group of therapists known as the Milan Family Therapy Group, also referred to as the Milan Associates. This group, active in Milan, Italy, during the 1960s and 70s, pioneered a number of innovative approaches to family therapy. Circular questioning was one of their key contributions, emerging from their focus on understanding family dynamics as interconnected systems rather than linear cause-and-effect chains.


One More Thing: Working With Helicopter Parents

If you're reading this, you're probably a therapist or counsellor and you might have come across some anxious parents already. In family systems work, this anxiety is likely part of the symptoms you're being asked to treat, so it's essential that underlying Parental Anxiety is addressed.

I'd love for you to check out the course I made specifically for High Anxiety caregivers (some of which are Helicopter Types) - it's called Grounded Parenting - and it's a Family Systems oriented parenting course designed to help parents understand and lower their anxiety.

If you want to review it yourself before you offer it to a parent or client, I totally get that, send me an email and I'll send you a big discount code so you can watch it first. The discount will just be for you, not your clients, but I want you to have confidence in your recommendations.


How to stop being a helicopter parent

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