Befriend A Swing Question Today!

I’ve been reading through my textbooks before I start grad school (I know, I know) and especially struck by the  Clinical Interviewing book.*

I mean, who couldn’t appreciate passages like this?

Several factors dictate seating-arrangement choices, including theoretical orientation. Psychoanalysts often choose couches, behaviorists choose recliners, and person-centered therapists use chairs of equal status and comfort.[…] Generally therapist and client should be seated at somewhere between a 90-and 150-degree angle to each other during initial interviews.

While I strongly discourage trying to be a therapist to your friends, (It will be exhausting! It will fail to meet your needs! They might begin to find every interaction too invasive!) this book has some work-throughs of conversational strategy that generalize.

Most people have heard of open and closed questions. The tl;dr of it is that open questions mean people can answer (and are encouraged to answer) in paragraphs, and closed questions allow (and encourage) short answers.

What adventures did you have today?

(Answer: Some story, or some reason why today was bad. In theory will capture narrative, mood, and current emotional state, plus give lots of jumping-off points for conversation to spring from.)

Did you have fun today?

(Answer: Yes/No, any elaboration is icing on the cake, and liable to be shorter than the open version of this question.)

Here’s the Advanced Version(tm): Swing Questions.

Again, back to the book:

Swing questions usually begin with Could, or Would, Can, or Will. For example:

  • Could you talk about how it was when you first discovered you were HIV positive?
  • Would you describe how you think your parents might react to finding out you’re gay?
  • Can you tell me more about that?
  • Will you tell me what happened in the argument between you and your husband last night?

Ivey, Ivey, and Zalaquett (2011) wrote that swing questions are the most open of all questions: “Could, can, or would questions are considered maximally open and contain some advantages of closed questions. Clients are free to say ‘No, I don’t want to talk about that.'” (p. 85)

Okay, so these sound a touch trite or overly solicitous. But we can work with this! Step one: bury the lede. Instead of opening with “Can you tell me more about X” try “I think I’m still missing something, can you tell me more about X?” (Important: you have to actually be missing something. This technique is to help conversations about difficult issues, not to teach insincerity.)

Alternate constructions:

I’m not sure I agree that he was being deliberately mean, but I don’t know if I have enough information about the argument. Will you tell me more about it?
Mmm, say more about that if you want to? (the can/would is more implied than stated here)
Would you be willing to explain what that was like? I’m not sure I’ve had any experience like that. (In theory, someone could respond with “Yes.” However, you’ve now indicated that you want them to talk more, and everyone wants to avoid the awkward pause that single-word answers cause.)

Step two: convey uncertainty!
You don’t want in any way to make this sound like a command (“Tell me your deepest secrets! Confess your distress!) and questions asked without a veneer of deference can be unintentionally pressuring. The fastest way to is to have increasing tone and pitch towards the end of the question. Depending on personal style and skill, raising one or two shoulders and/or tilting your head can also add effect.

So, dear readers, can you tell me more about what makes this succeed or fail for you?


*Very, very good if you’re looking to be a therapist/helping professional.

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2 thoughts on “Befriend A Swing Question Today!

  1. I’ll add a comment about seating: especially if your clients include older or physically impacted people, having a chair that doesn’t require the client to sink in to the earth’s mantle and then struggle to get up is much appreciated!

  2. To give a little background, I am a nurse with a long history of bulimia. I had thought about psychiatric nursing but ended up wanting nothing to do with it by the time I reached my clinicals and work in the ICU. But when I was doing my classes and clinicals in psych (note: we dealt with mostly acute inpatient populations, but this was supposed to be about therapeutic communication), we were always taught to ask open-ended questions but never to begin with “Can you tell me more about that?” because then the patient could just say “No,” and were recommended to say, gently and not in a commanding tone, “That sounds really difficult. Tell me more about that.” Or something like that. Not sure what I think about that, just interesting to see/ hear different techniques in different fields.

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