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Counselor's Corner: Strength-Based Counseling

April 14, 2021

The majority of clients with substance use disorders miss their second outpatient session (Duncan, Miller & Sparks, 2004). A main reason for this is the fact that our deficit based model can negatively impact client engagement. We are taught to search for deficits, setbacks and pathology early in the counseling relationship.

At intake clients are asked questions like:

  • What drugs do you use?
  • How many times have you gone to treatment?
  • How many times did you relapse?
  • Have you ever sold drugs?
  • Have you ever been treated for mental illness?
  • How many times did you relapse?
  • Have you ever attempted suicide? How many times?
  • Have you ever been incarcerated? How many times? Do you have any felony arrests?
  • Did you lose custody of your children as a result of your drug use?
  • Have you ever lost jobs because of your drug use?

Such questions can build walls rather than bridges in the beginning of the therapeutic relationship. 

Nine Strength-Based Intake Questions

While the answers to some of the above questions are important, a strength-based approach to engagement can leave clients feeling empowered, able and capable. Below is a list of strength-based intake questions.

  1. What do you do well? We have worked with clients who have been able to support a substance use disorder without a job. It takes skills to do that.
  2. How have you been able to endure so much? The majority of clients with substance use disorders have histories of trauma (Mate, 2010). This strength based question, honors their resilience.
  3. What do you like to do in your leisure time? A counselor posed this question to a 70 year old client who was court mandated and used heroin for 50 years. He was resistant to counseling until this question was asked. The client stated, "I play drums in my leisure times. When Miles Davis would come to town, I was his local drummer." This man was transformed before the counselor’s eyes from a court mandated 50-year heroin user to a jazz great!
  4. What is the best thing you ever made happen?
  5. What are the best three moments you can recall in your life? This question suggests that the client had a life before a substance use disorder or mental illness.
  6. What is your previous life suffering preparing you to do with the rest of your life? This strength based question assists clients in focusing on life purpose in recovery.
  7. What have you learned from what you have gone through? 
  8. Which of your experiences have taught you the most about your own resilience?
  9. Wow! How did you survive that? 

With a strength-based approach we communicate to clients that we believe in them and that we honor their capacity to change and grow. Our belief contributes to the client’s belief that they can transform their life.


Duncan, B., Miller, S., & Sparks, J. The Heroic Client. (2004). Jossey-Bass. San Francisco, CA.

Mate, G. In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts. (2010). North Atlantic Books. Berkeley, CA.

Counselor with college student
Mark A. Sanders, LCSW, CADC; Illinois State Program Manager, Great Lakes ATTC, MHTTC, and PTTC
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