One of the ways couple therapists try to deepen the therapeutic conversation is to ask, “What do you think about what happened” or “How do you feel about what your partner just said?” If a client answers, “I don’t know,” I ask, “What’s your best guess?” or “This is a trick question but, if you were to know, what would it be?” Or I ask a multiple-choice question. I say, “Let me suggest some possibilities. Do you feel (a) upset with Maria for bringing this up, (b) embarrassed by her bringing it up, (c) relieved that it’s now out in the open, or (d) something else entirely?”
An “I don’t know” drains the life out of a room, much like a yawn or an “I’m tired today.” I ask a multiple-choice question to counter this sag of energy. I’m saying in essence, “You don’t know what you feel? Don’t worry. We can figure it out. In fact, there’s a richness of possibilities here. I’ll mention just a few.” I’m restoring energy to the room.
At the same time, I’m simplifying the partners’ task. No longer are they required to come up with a feeling—something that they may not know how to do, are unused to doing, or are uncomfortable doing. All that’s required is that they recognize the feeling when it is placed in front of them.
But suppose I’m unable to place the feeling in front of them, that is, all of my suggestions are off the mark. That’s okay because often clients then say, “It isn’t any of those. It’s more that ….” My guesses, wrong though they are, have primed the pump of the clients’ own thinking about the matter.
A multiple-choice question doesn’t have to have a lot of items. Often two are enough. “How much does what Ben just said make sense and how much does it rub you the wrong way?” “How easy was it to make the changes you made this week and how much did it take a lot of effort?” “How much is what you just said what you really believe deep down and how much is it just a speculation?”
In asking such a “how much, how much” question, I:
- Raise new possibilities: “How much is it what you just said, which is that you’re angry, and how much do you also feel hurt?”
- Ask if they’re breaking new ground. “How much is this new information and how much is this stuff you already knew?”
- Clarify ambiguities: “How much is that just a joke and how much do you really mean it?”
- Suggest that people may have various, even opposite feelings about a matter: “How much do you blame Sam for the problem and how much do you blame yourself?”
- Explore a potentially controversial, provocative, or threatening issue by pairing it with a noncontroversial, nonprovocative, or nonthreatening one: “How much do you feel that the relationship is pretty much over and how much do you feel that it has a chance?”
- Help an accused partner deal with the accusation by acknowledging for them that they’ve been accused, which might then enable them to go on and deal with the issue being raised: “How much do you see Steve’s comment as an attack and how much as an expression of a concern?”
- Shift to the meta-level from which partners can talk about their reaction to and feeling about what just happened: “How much was it a relief to get that all out and how much did it just make you angrier?”
- Invite partners to evaluate the session: “What are you taking away from this session that’s useful, if anything, and what hasn’t been so good about it?”
You might notice that this last example doesn’t include the words “how much, how much.” I consider it a variant of the “how much, how much” question, as I do also interventions such as: “Is this a new conversation or one you’ve had before?” “How glad are you that you had this argument and how sorry?” and “In what ways do you agree with what Susan just said and in what ways do you disagree with it?”
Certain “how much, how much” and “multiple-choice” questions counter the shame that stands in the way of clients’ owning, even recognizing, their thoughts and feelings. Some clients love it when you say, “You seem angry.” They answer, “You bet I am. I’m glad someone’s finally noticed.” But a great number of clients would hear such a statement as an accusation, as saying, “You’re angry and you shouldn’t be.” It triggers their self-criticism and sense of shame.
By asking a multiple-choice question—that is, by listing anger as one of several possibilities—we can protect clients from this sense of shame, at least enough so to enable them to own this feeling. Instead of, “You seem angry,” we ask, “What are you feeling now: hurt, discouraged, angry, puzzled, or something else entirely?” The implicit message is, “All of these are understandable feelings anyone might have in a situation like yours.” Clients who would otherwise deny feeling angry often feel comfortable in answering, “All of those.”
“Multiple-choice” and “how much, how much” questions are also ways of making interpretations—in fact, they’re my favorite way of doing so. They allow me to put ideas in the air without accusing people of anything or putting pressure on them to accept the therapist’s point of view, things that could easily happen were I to make a single-channel interpretation such as, “You seem angry” or “You’re reacting to Ed as if he were your father long ago.” Such single-channel interpretations can too easily imply, “You may think you feel such and such, but you really feel this and that.” The alternative double-channel interpretation might be: “How much do you see your anger as simply a reaction to Betty’s provocation, as you just said, and how much do you see it as arising out of a sensitivity from childhood, as Betty just said?”
In conclusion, these two types of questions—“multiple-choice” and “how much, how much”—serve both as a revitalizing force in therapy and as a vehicle for making interpretations. They provide protection from the weight of the therapist’s authority and better enable partners to discover and express what they really think and feel.