‘What Was I Thinking?!’ Rhetorical
Questions as a Technique to Identify and
Explore Impasses in Therapy
erez de Le
Institute of Psychiatry Psychology and Neurosciences, King's College London
Rhetorical questions emerging spontaneously in consultations can be used as a tool for developing self-reflexivity
and exploring the therapeutic alliance in the process of therapy with couples and families. This paper presents a
technique based on the enunciation of rhetorical questions, which can point to an impasse in the process of ther-
apy and contain a key to its resolution. The technique focuses on the distinctive feature of rhetorical questions as
convening a paradoxical injunction: a question not intended as a question, while uttered as such. The technique
in four steps is illustrated by examples from therapy, supervision, consultation, and self-supervision. Its focus is the
interlink between the therapeutic relationship and the process of therapy and it is informed by a second-order
cybernetics approach, dialogical practice, and the systemic literature on emotion. The technique can help develop
curiosity in working with families, lead to unforeseen developments, and touch on prejudices not made explicit in
previous therapeutic encounters. Whether we are acting as supervisors, therapists, or clients, the creation of a ‘se-
cure enough’ context for rhetorical questions becomes critical to allow freeform exploration.
Keywords: dialectic process, emotion, metacommunication, rhetorical questions, self-reflexivity, supervision, thera-
1 Impasses in relational processes can be expressed in the form of rhetorical questions uttered during super-
vision or in therapy sessions with individuals, couples, or families.
2 The technique focuses on the distinctive feature of rhetorical questions as convening a paradoxical injunc-
tion: a question not intended as a question, while uttered as such.
3 The protocolled and simple structure of the technique allows it to be applied widely in therapy and super-
4 Supervision and therapy contexts are particularly indicated for an open exploration which would disregard
the meta-communication carried by the rhetorical question.
5 The ethical implications of disregarding socially established rules are considered with attention to responsi-
bility for the process of the conversation in such settings.
Introduction: Questioning the Certainties Enclosed in Rhetorical Questions
“What was I thinking?,” “What are they like?,” “What is he worried about?,” “How did
that happen?,” “Who cares?,” “What does it matter?,” “What did I do that for?”
Rhetorical questions like the ones above emerge often spontaneously in consultations,
whether these take place in supervision or in the context of therapy with couples or
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Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy 2018, 39,21–37
ª 2018 Australian Association of Family Therapy