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Questioning Your Client’s Cognitive Distortions

Written by L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.

Edited by Jay Hedley

It’s one thing to know and recognize cognitive distortions in your clients (and also in your own thinking and talking!), it is an entirely different thing to know how to respond to them. So let’s focus on that. Once you recognise a cognitive distortion, then what?

A simple and easy response would be to ask, “Did I just hear a cognitive distortion?” It’s an inquiry question that poses a search. Was there a cognitive distortion? Maybe there was, maybe there was not. No judgment, no accusation, just a curiosity. When you do this, often the person will be at a loss. He doesn’t know. He may even be unaware of what he just said. “What did I say?” At this point, repeat what your client said (an acknowledgment). That will enable her to hear herself. Then, you might repeat the specific cognitive distortion and call it out.

“I think that’s personalizing.” “Was that awfulising?” “Sounded like an over-generalisation, what do you think?” “Oh, a label!”

Once you’ve done that, then the key to compassionately challenging your client’s cognitive distortion is to know the kind of questions to ask upon identifying the distortion. Here is a list of questions for challenging each of the cognitive distortions.

Cognitive DistortionCoaching Questions
1. Over-generalisingAlways? Never? Did it occur in X?
2. All-or-nothing thinkingWhat makes X all or nothing? What’s in-between A and B? To what degree does X happen?
3. Labeling What do you mean by X-label? What are the conditions of X?
4. Blaming What part of X is your responsibility? How did you contribute to the situation?
5. Mind-readingHow do you know that X thinks, feels, intends that?
6. ProphesyingWhat is the probability that X will happen? What else might happen instead?
7. EmotionalisingWhat thoughts correspond to those emotions? What beliefs, meanings, and understandings increase that emotion?
8. PersonalisingHow is this about you? What else is it about?
9. AwfulisingI know it’s undesirable, but how is it “awful?” Awful in what way? What specifically does awful refer to?
10. Should-ingWho says you should? What’s the rule? Who made it? What if you changed should to will, want to, or get to?
11. FilteringIs this a negative filter? A self-serving filter? An over-optimistic filter? What kind of a filter is it? What are you leaving out?
12. Impossibility thinking: Can’t-ingIf you could, what would happen? What is possible? What can you do?
13. DiscountingWhat do you count and appreciate? What do you value?
14. IdentifyingHow are you more than X (a thought, emotion, experience)? Is X all that you are? Are you over- identifying yourself with X?

How do you learn these? Well, you could memorize one question for each distortion. You could keep familiarising yourself with them. You could keep them in front of you when you are in a coaching session and from time to time call for a Meta Moment … and peruse them … with that session’s subject and dialogue in mind.

If you write a journal or keep a diary— if you are bold and brave enough— read through it with the list of cognitive distortions before you. Catch them in yourself! Then use the questions with yourself and generate some new responses as you stretch yourself out of the old patterns.

Overall, your ability to catch a cognitive distortion in real-time as your client is speaking is the power to be truly present to your client. And as you keep developing and refining this skill, you will be more capable of pinpointing dis-empowering language and thinking patterns. This is also how to be more challenging as a coach. Prior to doing this, however, be sure to pre-frame why you are committed to catching them. These are the thinking patterns causing the problem and the misery.

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