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A method of externalization occurs within the Systems Theory of Circular Questioning. Circular questioning is the centerpiece of a group of family counselors known as the Milan Group. Their experiences with families of people with schizophrenia led them to question and discard structural approaches and to incorporate systems theory, which draws heavily on the work of Gregory Bateson, into their work. For Bateson, mental processes are a form of cybernetic feedback, and ‘mind’ consists of components connected in circular patterns. For people such as Karl Tomm, circularity means “the capacity of the therapist to conduct his [sic] investigation on the basis of feedback from the family in response to the information he solicits about relationships”. Tomm also regards circularity as “a bridge connecting systemic hypothesizing and neutrality by means of the therapists’ activity”.

Systemic counselors attempt to understand the system and to facilitate therapeutic change. To achieve these goals, they use two types of Circular Questions: descriptive and reflexive. They use the former to elicit information to help them understand how the ‘problem’ is systemically connected, while they use the latter to attempt to precipitate a change in that particular system. In general, using circular questioning in therapeutic intervention not only demonstrates respect for the autonomy of the system, but also provides more possibilities for transformation than does offering opinions, prescriptions, directives, or instructions. In family counseling, the method has three key aspects: circularity, neutrality, and hypothesizing.

In circularity, the usual rule for groups that “Each person speaks only for him or herself”, is broken by asking each family member in turn about particular aspects of relationship between two or more of the other family members. For example, the counselor asks a teenager, “Who intervenes more in the arguments between your parents, your grandfather or your grandmother?” Similarly, persons not present and hypothetical situations are also talked about – such as: “If one of the children were never to leave home and never to marry, which of you would probably be best for your father? And which for your mother?”.

It is also important that many of the contributions made by individual persons are now examined carefully to detect their possible communicative function. Let us assume that the mother begins to cry. While counselors might traditionally ask something like: “How do you feel?”, “What are you experiencing now?” or “What is going on inside of you?”, the circular question directed at the son could be, for example: “how do you think your father feels when he sees your mother crying like that?”.

The circularity results from asking questions in such a way that the family can make new connections and think in new ways about certain events and acts. This requires shifting person-positions from first-person actor to third-person observer. For example, when a mother describes her son’s perception of his father, the father faces a new image of himself. Instead of asking the son linear questions, such as “Do you love your father?” the therapists ask the mother circular questions, such as “How does your son show his love for his father?”

Neutrality, the second aspect of Circular Questioning, protects counselors from being forcibly incorporated into a family’s system. Normally, neutrality implies a lack of bias or involvement. In the case of Circular Questioning, Systemic counselors expect to be drawn into the conflicting patterns of the family, so they match this expectation in unexpected ways: they intervene by joining the family’s system of knowledge in order to help change the very same patterns of meaning and action that have brought the family to counseling. Counselors using Circular Questioning work in teams to take the side of the entire family and not the side of any one particular family member. They do this by asking each other circular questions in the family’s presence. For example, one counselor might ask another, “What do you think is the biggest challenge this family faces together?” Besides performing a person-shift, this question indicates to family members that they have to work together and that the counselor sees them as a unit.

The third aspect of Circular Questioning, hypothesizing, is used to guide the family to make connections among elements of the stories told by family members and the actions associated with those stories. Counselors create a flurry of hypotheses, all of which suggest different patterns of connections. They may hypothesize that a person being treated for depression has been and will go through periods of being ‘not depressed’. Instead of asking that person, “Why are you depressed?” they might ask, “When you are not depressed, what do you enjoy the most about not being depressed?” In searching for systemic connections, the counselors may ask the group, “Who is most affected by X’s depression?” They might also give a positive connotation to a symptom. For example, they may praise the depressed person’s behavior, hypothesizing that this depression is what holds the family together. From this point, they hypothesize that when the depressed person is ready to let others share the burden of holding the family together, s/he might find it easier not to be depressed.

Once a team of counselors joins a family system to explore how persons, actions, and ideas are inter(in)dependent, they use circular questioning to help the family become aware of how they engage with their “problems” by thinking and acting in certain patterns, and to guide them in creating alternate patterns. Rejecting the notion that problems are “caused” by meanings inside a person’s head, counselors use circular questioning to help people conceive of things like “family problems” as socially constructed achievements. Ultimately, circular questioning helps counselors probe for the ways families describe their relationships; in essence, it helps counselors discover a ‘grammar’ of meaning and action within relationships in order to transform painful patterns of interaction.