Curiosity: An essential stance for both therapist and family during family therapy conversations.

January 29, 2021 | By More

Emer Casey

Systemic Psychotherapist & Registered Family Therapist

During my training in family therapy I was introduced to the idea of staying curious at all times when meeting families.  This curiosity is defined in the literature as maintaining a position of “not knowing” with a view to bringing forth knowledge, skills and experience which may at first glance be invisible both to therapist and family.  A position of curiosity helps me to formulate questions that allow the family to begin to see things from different perspectives.  Gradually in these scenarios a family can move from being stuck to being able to move forward again. I have found over the years that my ability to stay curious is often directly related to good therapeutic outcomes. 

As well as staying curious myself, I am trying to inspire family members to become more curious about themselves and each other.  When families come into therapy they are normally stuck in a problem story with very limited ways of making sense of where they find themselves.  One member of the family may be controlling the narrative, blinding themselves and others to more helpful and hopeful perspectives.   When working with families, I strongly encourage the development of curiosity so that each family member can begin to develop new insights and consider new ways of moving forward.  Some of the questions that can be helpful include:

  • “How can we make sense of where we find ourselves in a way that helps us to move forward rather than keeps us stuck?”
  • ‘Which one of us is most optimistic/pessimistic about change and why? “
  • “ What can I/we do differently?”
  • “What resources can we draw on to help us?”
  • “What unhelpful ideas are there circulating in society about families that have seeped into our family…ideas that might need to be interrogated and discarded if they are not serving us well?”
  •  And so on and so on… 

In order to demonstrate the work I do and highlight some potential opportunities for change, I will outline a hypothetical case involving a mother and daughter struggling with daughter’s eating difficulty.  In this case mother and daughter present to therapy in a very stuck, hopeless place with mother full of self-blame and shame and daughter unable to see beyond her body shape and weight.  All their interactions are conflictual.  As they move into a more curious stance they begin to ask some useful questions such as:

  • What impact does the narrow definition of body shape (thin is best) that saturates the media have on the challenges we face together? (mother and daughter)
  • If I felt less ashamed about my failure as a mother would I reach out for more support? (mother)
  • What if anything might help me understand my relationship to food so that it is not taking over my life and my relationships? (daughter)
  • What would help us move away from conflict in the direction of a more harmonious relationship? (mother and daughter)

As mother and daughter continue to engage in curious questioning things begin to shift. The mother is able to acknowledge her need for outside support and reach out for same.  Her feelings of shame decrease to a degree that she reconnects with her own resources and feels more grounded and confident in dealing with the challenge of her daughter’s eating disorder.  The daughter begins to connect with a support group where she meets others who are facing the same challenges as herself. She gradually becomes more hopeful as she witnesses and learns from others who face similar challenges as herself and are further down their healing journey.  Both mother and daughter begin to reconnect with each other spending time together in an atmosphere of harmony rather than conflict. 

When families are waiting outside the room to start their first session of therapy they are often feeling very afraid. Frightened that their situation is hopeless and that seeking outside help might actually make things worse.  I aim to help them (individually and collectively) to move away from fear towards a stance that embraces curiosity.  Essentially my job is to facilitate a joint endeavour between myself and all members of the family.  My hope is that we embark on a journey together that is fuelled by curiosity which leads away from “stuckness” towards a land where new possibilities emerge and hope replaces fear.  

If you would like to book an appointment with Registered Family Therapist, Emer Casey, you can call the clinic on 091 727777 or get in touch via the contact page

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