A strong therapeutic alliance is the most important element of a successful therapy outcome. In order to nurture this connection with a client, it’s important to tend to its growth from the very start. Typically, the first substantial conversation we have with a client is during the intake session. If a therapist were to dryly work through the standard questions about the patient’s history and presenting problems, the exchange would be quite clinical and feel more like a formal interview than a conversation.
Here are 5 examples of outside-the-box questions to ask your client during an intake session to honor their unique journey and build therapeutic rapport:
1. What are you passionate about?
Asking about a person’s passions is an effective way of getting them to open up while learning about what motivates and inspires them. This topic can include hobbies, fandoms, advocacy groups, creative endeavors, or whatever “gives them life,” so to speak.
2. What are some of your most important values?
This is a very direct way of assessing our client’s ideals and beliefs. Heads up—this question may likely be answered with a deer-in-the-headlights look or a long, “Umm…”. It’s not a commonly asked question and we rarely have the answer primed and ready to go. Alternative ways of phrasing this question can include, “What matters most to you in life,” or “What are the lessons you want to pass down to your children?”
3. What do you like about yourself?
This question allows the client to reflect on their strengths and positive qualities. These qualities can be crucial in developing therapeutic interventions and exploring concepts like self-esteem. Consider following up this question with, “What do your friends and family like about you?” This question can help clients bogged down by negative self-talk to identify their strengths from a different perspective.
4. What didn’t work for you with previous therapists? What did?
Some clients have had less-than-excellent experiences with mental health services in the past. It’s important to ask about these experiences in order to validate their emotions and learn what not to do going forward. This question helps the client see that therapy can be a collaborative process and that their preferences are important to us. It is important to remember that while the use of skillful questioning is essential to our practice, it is secondary to our skills as engaged and active listeners.
5. What questions do you have for me?
Consider asking this question at the beginning and end of the intake appointment. Transparency and openness help clients feel safe in the therapeutic space and build trust with their clinician.
It is important that the first session is used to establish a relationship, not just gather information. When a new client enters our office, they are taking a risk by being vulnerable with a complete stranger. Thankfully, there are ways to guide an intake to be a more engaging and genuine interaction between two people. When you, the therapist, ask interesting questions that highlight your curiosity during the intake appointment, your client will consider you less a stranger and more a promising source of support.