As part 2 of a 2-part series of reflections on her Level 3 in The Management of Challenging Behaviour, Una Archer considers the use of circular questioning in Neuro Linguistic Programming:

“”I recently came back from the second part of the Releasing Potential Institute’s training course on ‘The Management of Challenging Behaviour’. We covered a whole lot of inspiring ideas that can help struggling children to make better behavioural choices. I decided to start putting these ideas into practice by exploring different types of questions we can ask when we are trying to understand what is causing a child’s behaviour and to help them find alternative ways to navigate the situation.

I’ll share what I learned so far using a simple example:

Lucy notices that despite asking her daughter Sarah to unload the dishwasher three times, she still is not doing it. Lucy manages to bring her frustration down to a manageable level and, instead of giving Sarah a lecture about being helpful, she asks her: “Why are you not listening to me?” Sarah stares at her blankly. She either honestly doesn’t know what to say or she does not feel that she can say it. The conversation has reached a dead-end. 


Questions can feel confrontational and overwhelming. They can imply that there is only one valid explanation and the person being asked that question should know that explanation. If Lucy wanted to create more of an atmosphere “let’s explore this together’ she could try asking What? How? When? questions instead. With a bit more research, I learned that asking What? How? When? questions is called circular questioning and came across this handy introduction to circular questioning by Jac Brown.

He explains that circular questioning “stimulates the release of information into the system in a manner that encourages new ways of viewing the problem.” Lucy and Sarah could have come up with a different way of approaching the dishwasher situation by first exploring what was going on for them and how their behaviour influenced each other, and co-creating a more nuanced picture of the situation. Brown (1997) suggests that we can facilitate this exploration by:

  • Narrowing our focus to a particular aspect of the situation and exploring it in more detail.
  • Expanding our focus and connecting the situation with the wider context.

I used Brown’s explanation to come up with a number of What? How? When? questions that Lucy could have asked Sarah instead.

Questions that help to explore different aspects of the situation in more detail:

  • “I noticed that yesterday you unloaded the dishwasher straight away and today I asked you to do it three times and you still haven’t done it. What is different about today?”
  • “How do you feel when I ask you to unload the dishwasher? How do you feel when daddy asks you to unload the dishwasher? What is different? Which do you prefer? What can I learn from how daddy does it?”
  • “We used to have a routine of you unloading the dishwasher after dinner and then we somehow dropped it. How did you feel about it when it was part of the daily routine?”

Questions that connect unloading of the dishwasher with the wider context:

  • “What were you doing when I asked you to unload the dishwasher?”
  • “How did you feel when I asked you to unload the dishwasher?”
  • “Do you believe it is unfair that I expect you to unload the dishwasher? What would seem fair to you?”
  • “Do you feel frustrated when I ask you to empty the dishwasher? What is this frustration about?
  • “Do you feel distant from me when I ask you to unload the dishwasher? What could I do to help us still feel close?”
  • “I’d like you to unload the dishwasher tomorrow as well. When would be a good time for you? Would you like me to remind you? How would you like me to do that?”

Asking questions like these may feel strange and artificial to start with. When I started experimenting with What? Why? How? questions I noticed that keeping a few ideas in mind helped me to find a more natural flow with it:

  • Allowing the conversation to evolve over time with spaces in between to mull things over.
  • Letting go of the need get to the outcome immediately, focusing more on coming up with a longer term solution.
  • Shifting the main focus from the ‘issue’ to how we communicate our needs to each other.
  • Dealing with one question at a time; giving myself time to take in the answer, the other person’s experience that has been shared and allowing the next question to arise from what I heard. Not rushing into the next question or coming up with solutions.
  • Trusting that the inspiration for alternative ways of approaching the situation will reveal itself during the process of exploration.

I’m grateful to have come across this idea at the ‘The Management of Challenging Behaviour’ training and feeling hugely inspired to carry on this exploration. I hope you will benefit from reading this post and possibly attending the training – I would highly recommend it”

Written by Una Archer MBPsS.

Una is a qualified Psychologist and Early Years specialist working with children and families.