One of the frequently asked questions in Logotherapy is: How do you know what is the right question to ask?

There is a case cited by Elizabeth Lukas in her book Meaning in Suffering of an 18-year-old girl who, due to a medical condition appears to be 12 years old. As soon as Lukas met the girl and addressed her as ‘young lady,’ the girl picked up an ashtray from the table and angrily threw it across the room. This was yet another indication to her that people don’t see her as she really is, and this infuriated her.

Lukas asked her a simple question: ‘If your first impression of a person changes after you get to know her, is it better if the first impression is not so great and you discover the true qualities of the person later, or is it better if the first impression is good and the disappointment comes afterwards?’

The girl answered, ‘No, it is better if a person has better qualities than appear at first.’ From this point, the girl’s attitude shifted. After finishing the therapy, she mailed Lukas an ashtray with a greeting attached.

How did the therapist think of what question to ask? If we look more closely, we can discern four distinct steps

  1. The therapist noticed unhelpful beliefs that were keeping the client stuck
  2. The therapist imagined a different way the client could see the world, that might point to an advantage
  3. The therapist formulated and asked a question that uncovered this advantage
  4. The therapist encouraged the client to expand on the meaning

In this case, the unhelpful belief was ‘Nothing in my life is good. I cannot interact with people because they treat me like a child.’ This perspective was not helping her social life.

Since it is inevitable that people will see her as a child, what can she possibly do?

The truth is always bigger. It is true that people treat her like a child. It is also true that she can show them who she really is. She can see an advantage in her situation: the opportunity to break people’s first impressions.

These two steps of observation + imagination formed the question in the mind of the therapist.

This line of questioning that presents alternatives is quite common in Logotherapy. For example, ‘Who would you rather be: the one who cheated on his or her partner or the one who was cheated on?’ (If you are the one who was cheated on, at least you can feel good about yourself.) ‘What would you rather have happened: that your wife died first or you died first? (Now that your wife died first, you have ‘sacrificed’ for her sake, as it would have destroyed her to be the grieving one.)

This is an effective strategy because it is not the therapist who believes it to be true but the client who considers this to be a true statement.  

Once the client saw the potential advantage in her situation, the path was smooth to connect the dots between her belief that ‘it is better to discover the person’s true qualities later’ and how this might apply to her own situation.

She was already surprising people by her use of sophisticated vocabulary. Lukas expanded on her newly-found advantage by helping her to think of ways in which she could improve her language skills even more, and surprise and impress people with her vocabulary and knowledge.

It is often said that Logotherapy is for the whosoever, religious or not. In an age where ancient values are crumbling, meaning can still be found.

But the fact is that even people who have a faith-based perspective need to be able to see an aspect of truth in their particular situation that will allow them to make sense of their world. To live a meaningful life, meaning cannot be theoretical. It has to work in the particulars. Thus, Logotherapy serves those who have no religious orientation as well as those who do.