Marple Cross Centre

What is Circular Questioning?

A technique of asking questions of a couple's (or a family's) relationship

Article written by (see more…) on 7 Apr, 2012 in Couple Counselling, Systemic Therapy | 0 comments

What is Circular Questioning?

In systemic couple counselling, the “client” that the therapist works with is not primarily the two people who came to the therapist.  The primary client is actually the relationship that the couple brings with them, not the individual partners.

Whilst making interventions to an individual can be second-nature: (“how do you feel about that?”)  can such interventions be asked of a relationship?  Although each individual in the relationship could be asked “how do you feel about that,” taking this approach focuses upon the individuals as individuals … it doesn’t focus on the relationship. A couple’s relationship cannot be asked “how do you feel about that”

So, how does a couple therapist ask questions of the couples’ relationship?

Connections made within a Relationship.

When working with a couple (or a family) in a systemic model of therapy, we as therapists work with the knowledge that each member of the family is connected with everyone else in the family “system”.  Thus, Person A‘s behaviour effects Person B.  In turn, Person B‘s response to the A‘s effect can go on to effect others in the system (and effect Person A too).  This is known as a circular effect and is distinct from a linear or a casual effect.

Example of a Couple System.

  • Person A does behaviour z
  • Person B responds with behaviour y.
  • A misunderstands “y” and thinks he’s just experienced behaviour x.  He goes into his x-response mode which is behaviour w.
  • B is hurt – there was no need for behaviour w! He gets his own back with behaviour v.
  • A is aghast at behaviour v and gets out the old response u.
  • … and so on…

The systemic couple counsellor helps the couple to learn about their behaviour/response cycle, to hypothesise out what the system is meant to do, support the couple figuring out where the system needs perturbing/altering, and to learn to watch out for repeating patterns that they can choose to correct in situ, etc…

As a systemic couple counsellor, I know from study of the original Milan Associates field of family therapy that in order for a relationship to exist between people there has to be differences between the individuals in that relationship.  Differences – not similarities.  In order to assist a couple in couple counselling, I help to perturb their unhappy system by searching for such relationship differences.  Differences provide the couple and I information about the relationship in counselling, and the connections and distinctions within it.

To learn about how a relationship ‘system’ works we need a form of questioning that allows us to question the relationship, i.e. the whole system (and portions of systems within the whole). We do this with circular questions.

Initially, the therapist models the process of seeking differences (in addition to other systemic methods such as hypothesising, creative thinking, paradoxical thinking & perturbation), inviting the couple to begin taking up the process themselves. Circular questions are unfamiliar to many – and a couple being asked a circular question may initially struggle, but later enjoy the challenge and to learning that such questions bring out of the relationship.

Example Intervention: Individual versus Relationship focus.

When working in individual counselling, we ask questions of that individual:

“How do you become depressed?”

This is an open question.

When working with a couple in couple counselling, we are focussed on the relationship:

“When A is depressed, what does B do in response to this?”

This is a circular question.


In the circular question we are looking for differences (and similarities will come along to) in the answers.

In the circular question example above, we may learn that Person B joins in with A’s depression, or that Person B may do something to avoid A’s depression, or something else; we will learn about the system between Person A and B when depression occurs.

Relationship Counselling: Information is a Difference.

Argumentar ©

Selvini et al (1980) put forth systems ideas from Gregory Bateson (1972) – originally from computer systems theories – and reframed the concepts of computer systems into human family systems: we try to gain information because “information is difference”, and “difference is a relationship” (cited by Julia Houston, Sarah Galloway, 2008, Google Books).

In systemic couple counselling, we are attempting to out draw information from the relationship (the “system”) so that the couple can learn new things about what is happening.  As the responses to circular questions can be used by the therapist to form further circular question, lots of new things (new differences) can be learned about the system.

For example, when addressing a couple who believe that they are unable to control their arguing, a favourite approach of mine is to begin with:-


Who first notices that an argument is beginning? 


My initial purpose is to begin perturbing the couple’s firmly held system concept (we cannot control our arguing) by giving the couple something new to think about. I am inviting the couple to learn something new about their system – and it is likely that this is the first time a couple have been asked a question like this. Plenty of conversation can ensure from this and I usually find that a number of common responses (any of which can be responded with further circular-type enquiries) begin:-

  • “I do / he/she does” (… e.g. the couple are agreeing).
Therapist’s response may be: … and when he/she notices this, what do they do … (and later) and what is your response to that behaviour?
  • “He does / No I don’t!” (… e.g. the couple are disagreeing).
Therapist’s response may be: that’s interesting, you disagree on who is noticing the argument beginning (solicits further discussion).
  • “I/we don’t know” (… couple may not know, or may be avoiding).
Therapist’s response may be: well that’s curious, isn’t it?  How might we go about discovering this? (Solicits further thoughts from the couple).

The systemic therapist is being deliberately nosey (or ‘curious’ to model my style of in-session speak) – breaking the rule of many couples-in-conflict, that is: we don’t talk about the more difficult parts of our system.  The therapist has permission to break this rule (usually implicitly by the nature of the couple coming into couple counselling, but we will quickly learn if our questioning is not permissible).

Examples of Circular-style questions.

Circular questioning styles that try to bring out differences include:-

“Family Tree Hierarchy” ©

  • Across Time:
    How might this problem change in the near future … medium future … long term future?
  • Between People:
    Who, between the two of you, most believes that John (the husband) is mostly responsible for these arguments?
  • Aspects of a person:
    When you are unhappy with what’s happening in this relationship, which part is more likely to take over: your rational side, or your emotional side?
  • Between Situations:
    “Is this relationship happier at home …or on holiday …or elsewhere?”

The Purpose of Circular Questioning.

Cause & Effect ©

The purpose of systemic couple therapy is to invite the couple to perturb the way their relationship behaves.  We do this by asking questions about how the relationship system currently operates, how it operated in the past, and how it might opera in the future) and of each particular in the system (both partners – and often other family members too) in order to help the couple learn how the system really works – not just their belief of how it works.

Circular questions helps us learn about the relationship in therapy by seeking differences between the couple in their system.

And, with circular questioning being a core of systemic couple therapy, this form of questioning as a therapeutic approach nicely umbrellas different therapeutic approaches (psychodynamic, CBT, Gestalt etc)

When the couple have greater knowledge about how their relationship is working, the couple can take up the challenge to make changes in the system (using creativity, thinking ‘outside the box’, trying new things and so on).

With knowledge of systemic approach (A effects B effects C effects A…), the changes that one person can bring will inevitably effect others in the system.

It gives the couple-who-is-waiting-for-their-partner-to-change something to think about … that both partners are involved in conflicts (the approach can challenge the position of “it’s all his/her fault”).  When we’re given the power to change ourselves we’re more likely to make a change than to be waiting for our partner to change on our behalf.

Portions referenced from  “Circular Questioning: An Introductory Guide” A.N.Z.J. Family Therapy. 1997, Vol. 18, No. 2, pp 109-114


About the author - Dean Richardson…

Dean has been practising counselling since 1999 and business coaching since 1997. His private practice focuses upon providing effective therapies based on psychodynamic, systemic, cognitive behavioural and group analytic approaches for couples, individuals and small support groups. Dean also has a special interest in LGBT counselling (couples, individuals etc).

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Therapists who work with: Couples, Couples and Relationship Therapy, Family therapy, LGBT (couples/relationships), Relationships, Systemic.

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