Open-ended and closed-ended questions

How might family therapists begin to move past these seemingly insurmountable forks in the therapeutic road? It is here that discursive approaches can help to illustrate ways forward. Couture’s conversation analytic work on conversational impasses (e.g., Couture, 2006, 2007; Couture and Sutherland, 2006) clarifies how it may be possible to establish all views as valid and to facilitate a shared way forward on a specific issue in a conversation.

In practice, this may look like engaging family members with different perspectives together in renegotiating their views in an attempt to find a middle ground (Couture, 2006). In her work. Couture (2006) shows an interaction between Joe, an adolescent struggling with depression and sui- cidality, and his parents. Joe had just left the hospital where he had signed a therapeutic contract that stated he would keep himself safe. At the beginning of the session (not shown), the parents spoke from a position of certainty that Joe would follow through with the contract, while Joe conveyed doubt in his ability to uphold the contract. This position of certainty may constitute a kind of pressure and be counterproductive, potentially setting Joe up for failure. From a systemic-relational perspective, it is the “coupling” of extreme doubt and certainty that may keep families stuck in conflictual interactions and impasse. Both positions may need to be explored and challenged.

Exemplar 1 (from Couture, 2006, p. 291), (J- Joe, В - Bob, T- therapist)

  • 01. T: >Okay< (. 7) urn (1.2) now how do you feel about this like is
  • 02. this is something you feel that you can live or (.5) or are you not
  • 03. sure that you can live up to this or not er: : (3.4)
  • 04. J: >1 don't know< (.4) I don't know yet I guess (.)
  • 05. В : ( (Bob furrows brow) )
  • 06. T: Don't know ya (1.2) well that is probably an honest


  • 07. because you don't know for sure right? (.)
  • 08 . J: *Mhmm* (.)

Here, the therapist demonstrates neutral engagement by eliciting Joe’s perspective on the contract instead of joining the parents’ view that Joe can (and should) follow the contract. The therapist asks an open-ended question (“how do you feel about this,” line 1), seeking Joe’s perspective on the matter at hand (the safety contract). Interestingly, before Joe has an opportunity to answer the question, the therapist reformulates the question into a more closed-ended (Yes or No) question (lines 2-3). The new question changes what Joe can say in response. Whereas the open-ended question (how do you ...) seeks information from Joe, the closed-ended questions merely asks Joe to confirm or disconfirm what the therapist says. That is, with the latter the therapist (not Joe) becomes the source of an alternative, disagreeing idea. The design of the reformulated question is noteworthy (“is this is something you feel that you can live or (.5) or are you not sure that you can live up to this or not”). The question delineates two possible views on the contract: Joe adhering to its conditions (the parents’ position) and Joe struggling to commit or “live up” to the contract (an alternative position). It may be a way to put on the table all family members’ views and not take a stance (i.e., remain a neutral party). Joe may feel pressured to adopt the parents’ version. The yes/no question asks Joe to merely confirm the therapist’s guess rather than be the one to introduce a different view. It may be a way to bring forth all family members’ views, especially views that may be marginalized within families.

In the extract, we can see the discursive workings of managing accountability. For instance, Joe manages accountability as he responds to this invitation, selecting an uncertain position with regard to his capacity to follow through (“I don’t know < (.4) I don’t know yet I guess (.)”). This response may reflect the stakes for Joe. If he commits to the contract, he may be kept accountable if he fails to live up to it (e.g., his parents may later say “you promised”). On the other hand, if he says he will not live up to the contract, he may get opposition or criticism from his parents. In using the adverb “yet” in response to these questions, Joe manages to overcome the dilemma by not committing to the contract but not explicitly opposing his parents. The therapist acknowledges (“Don’t know ya”) and accounts for Joe’s claimed lack of knowledge (“well that is probably an honest statement because you don’t know for sure right?”, lines 6-7). In so doing, the therapist treats Joe’s perspective as legitimate. Couture’s work illustrates the possibilities of discursive research for identifying ways that therapists can use language to surface varied points of view and remain neutral.

Obliqueness, orchestrated talk, and humour

As differing positions are elicited and developed as valid within the conversation, where do therapists go from there? Conversational analytic work by Aronsson and Cederborg (1996) illustrates conversational practices used by therapists to navigate the therapist’s neutral engagement or the development of “equidistance between opposing parties in family therapy talk” (p. 208). Aronsson and Cederborg analysed a session in which a therapist helped bring forth two opposing perspectives within the family: that a teenage son (Sam) is ready to move out and live on his own (Sam’s father’s position) and that he is not yet mature and responsible enough to move out (Sam's mother’s position). Sam’s position is ambiguous: there are benefits and disadvantages to living on his own. The therapist used a series of discursive strategies, including “orchestrated talk” (inviting family members to directly speak to each other), humour, and “obliqueness” (i.e., impersonal constructions such as “one” or “people”). These strategies were used to advance specific views in therapy without appearing to blame certain family members. Exemplar 2 demonstrates the use of humour and orchestrated talk. The dynamic of protectiveness and overprotectiveness within the family is explored. The mother is worried about and protective of Sam. At the same time, the relational dynamic is explored of Sam feeling the obligation to stay home to take care of his parents and their distress and conflict.

Exemplar 2 (M - mother, T - therapist).

  • 01. M: (talks about her husband) He does pick on me, yes, he does pick on
  • 02 . me, but mostly it's about Sam that he picks on me
  • 03. T: You see, I do think there's an issue here, in the same way

that I

  • 04. think Sam needs to be able to tell you that he can manage on his
  • 05. own, I think you may need to tell Sam that you can manage on your
  • 06. own.
  • 07. M: Oh right, yes.
  • 08. T: If you think you can. Otherwise you need to keep him engaged as your
  • 09 . protector for the next 10 years .
  • 10. M: (to Sam) I don't think that's necessary darling, I do

think we

  • 11. can manage.
  • 12 . S: It is a very awkward position for me like.
  • 13 . T: Wait a minute, were you convinced by what she said?
  • 14 . S: No.

The therapist organizes or orchestrates talk between the family members, inviting them to say specific things to each other (“I think you may need to tell Sam that you ...”). The issue of Sam struggling to become more independent is framed not as Sam’s issue but as rooted in relational dynamics and involving actions of both parties (the parents and Sam). The suggestion may be received by the mother as implying that she is to blame. The humorous packaging of the suggestion (lines 5-6) can be used to mitigate criticism of the mother and address “the issue of protection and overprotection without getting involved as anyone’s ally” (Aronsson and Cederborg, 1996, p. 207). The example above shows how multiple, conflicting views can be brought forth while downplaying the therapist’s alignment with specific family members.

In this section, we have explored how discursive methods can draw our attention to how different points of view are established as valid, and how therapists can invite family members to transcend conversational impasses. Impasses occur when family members struggle to negotiate between different views. However, the conflictual issues families bring to therapy are not limited to impasses. Families may experience relational challenges when there is stagnation of meaning, that is, specific views get established as the only “correct” way to understand a matter at hand (e.g., how to parent, relate to each other, spend family time, accomplish specific tasks). Meanings that are established as singular within families may or may not be a part of a relational or interactional impasse, depending on how others respond (e.g., endorse, resist, concede) to views promoted as ultimately correct or singular. In the next section, we engage with discursive work on practices that therapists can use to challenge and augment singular explanations and foster multiplicity and diversity of viewpoints.

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