The Opening Micro-skills

“First impressions stick.” “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” If there is any truth in these two popular notions, then anyone working with a helpee (e.g. a therapy client, a friend, a family member, etc.) within the context of providing mental health support should not underestimate the usefulness and importance of opening micro-skills.

Appropriate use of non-verbal micro-skills tells care recipients that you are with them and ready to listen. When you use opening micro-skills, you are inviting them to tell you more. While these are technically commands, they are “soft” ones, in that they are presented to the helpee in a manner that communicates, “It is okay to decline”. They help to create comfort in the helpee because they foster the courage to confide. The purpose of openers is to encourage disclosure without dominating the conversation. There are two broad categories of these skills: “encouragers”, such as “door openers” and “minimal encouragers”, and questions. First we consider t he encouragers.

Encourager micro-skill: door openers. Initiated by the helper, door openers are short, non-judgmental statements or questions which encourage exploration and discussion by communicating the availability of the helper. Helpees determine how deep they go with them. They are particularly common in the initial phase of a helping encounter, and may include observations by the helper.

Here are some examples:

  • “What would you like to discuss today?”
  • “What’s happening for you?”
  • “Can you tell me more about that?”
  • “You look discouraged today. Do you want to talk about it?”
  • “What’s on your mind?”
  • “I see you have some brochures for different medical centres. Would you like to talk about that?”

Door openers are useful because they aid helpers in beginning a conversation or getting helpees to expand on a topic. Also, they buy time for the helper to formulate a response.

Encourager micro-skill: minimal encouragers. From head nods to positive facial expressions to “uh-huhs”, these brief supportive statements signal attention and understanding. Minimal encouragers are (mostly) verbal responses that show interest and involvement, but have the purpose of encouraging the helpee to keep talking.

They are not intended to start a conversation, nor to stimulate discussion. They only communicate that the listener is on track. They allow the helpee to determine the primary direction of the conversation. With this micro-skill, the helpee is rewarded for continuing to talk.

Examples of minimal encouragers are:

  • “Yes”
  • “I’m with you.”
  • “Okay.”
  • “I see what you mean.”
  • “Umm.”
  • Silence, accompanied by positive facial expression, nods, or open gestures (Young, 2005).

Minimal encouragers are successful helper tools because of the paradox that they create. In using them, helpers most powerfully aid helpees by simply getting themselves out of the way.

Encourager micro-skill: questions. While non-verbal language and encouragers are foundational to the helper’s micro-skills, it is questions that provide a systematic framework for directing the helping session. They can aid a helping interview to begin, and move it along smoothly. Questions can open up new areas for discussion, and issues can be pinpointed and clarified. All of this helps care recipients explore themselves and their issues. All schools of psychology recognise questions as an essential component, and they are particularly prominent in some theories, such as re-careering, brief counselling, and cognitive-behavioural approaches.

The major function of questions is to help the helpee to talk more freely and openly, to check perceptions, or to provide specific information. Your skill in questioning as a helper can have these results:

  • Bringing out more of the helpee’s story, enriching their world, and aiding in keeping the story going;
  • Making an effective assessment of a helpee’s issue. Questions are the backbone of effective assessment. The who, what, when, where, how, and why of journalism is recommended as a ready system for helping the helpee to elaborate;
  • Guiding the manner in which a care recipient talks about an issue. “What” questions bring out facts, and “How” questions tend to promote discussion about processes, sequences, or feelings. Concrete specifics can be brought out with such questions as, “Could you give me a specific example?”
  • Assisting the helpee to search for positive assets, because stories presented in the helping session are often negative, and full of problems. The positive asset search is a concrete way to approach positive regard and respect for the client;
  • Helping to open or close talk according to the individual need of the interview. For instance, helpers would not want to have a helpee begin to open up right at the end of the helping session (Ivey & Ivey, 2003).

The shadow side of questions. Questions are powerful, useful, and necessary. But they must be utilised sparingly, with great caution. The wrong sort of question can close helpees down rather than open them up. When responding to your questions, helpees talk within your frame of reference, not their own. Questions can potentially take self-direction away from the helpee (Ivey & Ivey, 2003).

And too many or poorly phrased questions can cause the helpee to feel interrogated rather than supported and comforted, increase their dependence on the helper, and encourage socially acceptable answers rather than honest ones. The following problems in using questions crop up frequently with beginning or unskilled helpers:

Bombardment/grilling. Too many questions tend to put helpees on the defensive.

Multiple questions. Helpers sometimes ask a helpee several questions at once. Although the helpee may be glad to have a choice as to which question to answer, it often feels like bombardment.

Questions as statements. Helpers sometimes make a statement in the form of a question which pushes their agenda or point of view. It is probably better to just be direct about the fact that a statement is being made, rather than try to disguise it as a question.

Questions and cultural differences. Members of some cultures receive questions, even rapidly asked questions, with ease, but in other cultures, receiving a number of questions promotes distrust of the helper. Also, as there is often a power differential between helper and helpee, questions can imbalance the power even more, as they give control to the question-asker (the helper).

‘Why’ questions. These may be necessary occasionally, but generally cause great discomfort in helpees, because many people remember being scolded or punished as a child after they were asked why questions.

Questions and control. While questions can be useful in bringing an out-of-control session under direction, questions can also be used unfairly and intrusively for the helper’s gain rather than that of the helpee. If this happens, the relationship built by use of attending skills is destroyed.

We will be concerned here with the two main types: closed and open questions.

Closed questions. These are questions that lead to a specific, often very short, answer. It may be an answer like “yes” or “no”. They have the advantage of focusing the interview and obtaining information, but the burden of guiding the talk (and therefore the “power” or position of dominance in the session) remains with the question-asker (usually the helper). With these, the helpee may choose to expand on the answer, but is not likely to do so. Closed questions often begin with is, are, or do: for example, “Do you love your girlfriend?” “Is that why you came to see me?” “Are you employed?”

In responding to a closed question (especially if it is a leading question), helpees often feel restricted in the type of information that they are “allowed” to add back in. They may perceive that the helper has an agenda that they should somehow respect. Thus, they may not feel comfortable to talk freely. For example, how would you respond to a (closed) question such as, “Do you think that you did that because your father never paid much attention to you?” It is worth noting that lawyers use closed questions to constrain and focus the direction of people on the witness stand. Helpers don’t generally have the same goals as barristers (Geldard & Geldard, 2005).

Open questions. In contrast, open questions cannot be answered in a few words. They encourage a person to talk, and provide maximum information. They persuade helpees to answer by giving them the opportunity to refuse. The helpee responding to an open question is given lots of scope, and “allowed” to freely divulge additional material, which enriches the response. Open questions often begin with what, how, why, or could. Generally more useful to helpers, these can facilitate deeper exploration of issues.

Examples of open questions are: “What is your relationship with your parents like?” “How did you come to this decision?” “Could you tell me more about your involvement with that?” Open questions, by their nature, encourage helpees to talk about things that are interesting and meaningful to them rather than those that are so to the counsellor (Geldard & Geldard, 2005; Ivey & Ivey, 2003).


  • Ivey, A. E., & Ivey, M.B. (2003). Intentional interviewing and counseling: Facilitating client development in a multicultural society (5th ed.). California: Thomson Brooks/Cole.
  • Geldard and Geldard (2005). Basic personal counseling: A training manual for counselors. Australia: Pearson.
  • Young, M.E. (2005). Learning the art of helping: Building blocks and techniques. New Jersey: Pearson/Merrill Prentice Hall.