Recovering The SelfA Journal of Hope and Healing


Bob Rich’s Self-Therapy Guide: Clarifying Questions

Bob Rich’s book From Depression to Contentment: A self-therapy guide is therapy in your pocket. Depression, anxiety, and other forms of suffering are all too common in our crazy world. Bob teaches you how to rise from that to “normal,” which is the walking wounded, then far above that, to inner strength enabling you to cope in any situation.

Recovering the Self published two sections of Bob’s book in a series of posts – the first section ending with the quest for meaning and the second section concluding with The Development of Resilience. The third section of Bob’s work continues here with special attention to various techniques and practices that are helpful in controlling depression.

In the previous post, Bob talked about an interesting and important tool in CBT – the ABC Diary. Here, he shares a short story that depicts a client couple.

Clarifying Questions

This is one of Aaron Beck’s best inventions. He devised it to deal with the MAJOR source of conflict between people, what he calls “mind reading,” but I have personally applied it when the problem was between me and myself. I’ve taught it to countless clients.

Mind reading happens because we don’t perceive facts, but our interpretation of them. Here is a short story I wrote about it, based on an actual client couple.

Clarifying questions

Coffee Storm

Retirement has its routines.

Every day after lunch, Celia consumed the next of an endless succession of romances. John snoozed away while supposedly playing online scrabble. Then, at four o’clock, Celia made them a cup of coffee each.

Today, John woke with a start and looked at the clock: nearly 4:30. Wanting to do something nice, he asked, “Would you like me to make the coffee?”

“Wait a minute.” Celia sounded annoyed. She stayed silent for a while, then snapped, “I’ll do it, but CAN’T YOU WAIT TILL I FINISH MY CHAPTER?”

Feeling both puzzled and hurt, John shouted back, “DON’T BOTHER!” He stormed off to the kitchen, and made one cup of coffee, for himself.

That evening, Celia set the table for one, and had a poached egg on toast, with nothing for John.

He’d never hit her, or any other woman, but sure felt like it now. To control himself, he stormed out, bought a hamburger, then visited their daughter, Mandy, crying on her shoulder about this incomprehensible reaction to an attempt at kindness.

“Sit down, Father,” Mandy commanded, and pecked on her phone. She put it on speaker.

“I knew that passive-aggressive wannabe manipulator would run straight to his favorite daughter,” Celia’s voice came.

John opened his mouth in outrage, but Mandy waved him to silence. “Mother, can you explain what you mean by that?”

“OK, so I was caught up in a great book and was a few minutes late with the coffee, but couldn’t he just have said so?”

“Father, what did you say?”

“I saw she was enjoying her book, and offered to make us the cup. And she bit me in the bum!”

“Liar! You mocked me!”

John spoke loudly, to ensure Celia heard him: “Mandy, you’ve got an opportunity for a live-in babysitter and domestic worker. You know I’m a good cook when I put my mind to it. May I move into your spare room?”

“Jee, what a child! So you’re going to divorce me because your coffee was a half-hour late!”

Mandy eventually convinced them to see me for couple therapy.

What was going on here?

John made a genuine offer, but what Celia heard was a passive aggressive hint, “Hey, you’re late with your job. I expect to be served on time.” How arrogant! she thought — and reacted.

In session, I said, “Celia, your interpretation was perfectly possible, but was in fact incorrect. John honestly offered to take over the coffee-making. He was offering an act of friendship, and got attacked for it. How else could you have handled the situation?”

She looked angrily at me, and seemed ready to walk out. “So, it’s all my fault?”

Oops. I’d put my foot in it. (Therapists aren’t perfect, either.) I realized that mind reading was probably a well-entrenched negative habit of hers. “Not at all,” I answered. I am not looking at assigning fault, but at helping the two of you to design a new way of enjoying each other’s company. But OK, John, you go first. When Celia snapped at you, you reacted with anger and outrage, and retaliated. Can you think of something you could have said that’d have saved the situation?”

“Uh… no.”

“You were really and genuinely offering to make the coffee. How could you get her to realize that?”

“By telling her.”


He grinned. “And making two cups.”

Got him. Now I returned to Celia. “OK. When John offered to make the coffee, you saw him as being manipulative rather than actually meaning it. Is there anything you could have said to test this theory of yours?” (This is “reframing:” I was gently leading her from certain belief to considering her interpretation as a theory. I often reframe my own internal statements.)

She shrunk in on herself for a moment, then looked me in the eyes. “Yes please, love.”

Both of them came up with perfect reactions that would have eliminated the issue, but I wanted them to learn a more general tool, so switched into teacher mode, explaining about clarifying questions. Celia could have demanded, “Are you really offering, or is this a way to manipulate me to be on time with my servant’s job?” John’s answer should have been, “I don’t look on you as a servant, and REALLY offered to make the coffee.”

Similarly, if Celia had exploded, he could have used the clarifying question: “Celia, what makes you think I wasn’t really offering to make the coffee? Stay there, I’ll do it straight away.”

I’ve gone into such length because you can do this with yourself.

Anne and I are in the middle of organizing a business transaction. I couldn’t get through to her on the phone, and she didn’t answer my emails. “She’s lost interest,” I thought, dejected.

She phoned today, full of enthusiasm, and explained that her phone ran out of credit, and since she is moving house, she simply didn’t have the opportunity to recharge it, and her computer is still packed away…

My interpretation was wrong. I could have saved myself all that angst.

Suppose that when I had the thought that she’d lost interest, I’d questioned it. “Could there be any other explanation for her silence?” I’m sure you can come up with several possibilities, phone malfunction being a likely one. Just for fun, see if you can generate five.

When the negative emotion is in response to someone else’s behavior, a good habit is to ask the clarifying question from that person. But asking yourself is equally powerful. For example, suppose you’re assembling flat-pack furniture, and find a nut missing. You get angry at shoddy packaging, and are about to phone the retailer to tell them off. It’s a VERY good idea to search a little more, remembering that dropped objects can go a long way. You’ll probably find it several feet away, like in a dark spot under a couch.

Remember, your reaction is to a theory you’ve formed in response to the current situation.


Next time you are angry at someone, or your mood crashes because of some happening, ask yourself, “What is my interpretation of this situation? It may be true, but what other possible interpretations can I think of? Is there any way of testing which is true?”

– Dr. Bob Rich

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