What is Compassionate Inquiry? Exploring Gabor Maté’s Psychotherapeutic Approach

Traits empathic people share

Today, there are dozens of different psychotherapeutic methods available, along with innumerable studies supporting their effectiveness. Not only do those with mental health and addiction problems have to navigate all these modalities, but they need to find a skilled practitioner with whom they can foster a workable relationship. 

For example, an unskilled psychotherapist could give the wrong impression about CBT or psychodynamic therapy, and the client might think the issue was with the method rather than its administration. 

Another issue is there can be a high degree of detachment between therapist and client, where both end up being trapped by their assigned roles. Some have pointed out that this inability to engage on a fundamental human level deprives the client of the presence and compassion so crucial to healing. World-renowned expert on addiction and trauma, Dr. Gabor Maté, is one such person.

Given the sheer range of extant psychotherapies, you’d be forgiven for assuming the ground was completely mapped out. Maté wasn’t so sure. Leveraging his extensive research and experience, he developed a radical approach: compassionate inquiry. This revolutionary psychotherapy has proven highly effective in allowing people to heal from their trauma, mental health issues, and addictions.

How was compassionate inquiry developed?

In Maté’s own words, “compassionate inquiry arose out of necessity.”

During his many years working as a family physician, he treated people with a broad variety of different conditions, from autoimmune diseases to neurological conditions, to mental health disorders. It slowly dawned on him that none of these illnesses could be separated from people’s life experiences—they were often rooted in childhood and emotional patterns developed over time.

“It wasn’t enough just to help with the physical side of things so, if somebody’s depressed it’s not enough to give them an antidepressant. If somebody’s got rheumatoid arthritis it’s not enough just to give them an anti-inflammatory or something to suppress the autoimmune process. You really should deal with their emotional lives which means spending time and talking with people.”

You might be wondering why he didn’t simply refer patients to psychotherapists or psychiatrists. Well, most of those he worked with couldn’t afford psychotherapists, and psychiatrists weren’t suitable for this approach. This is mainly because their role entails diagnosing and prescribing medication which, in Maté’s view, often makes people worse. Maté believed that what people needed more than psychiatric drugs, was to be seen and understood on an emotional level.

As a result, the Canadian physician began spending time listening to his patients and talking with them, conducting therapy sessions at the end of each day. 

Even though his initial approach lacked a technical framework, his genuine interest and active listening made a significant difference in his patients. Through this process, his own therapy, and extensive research for his various books on mind-body health, stress, addiction, ADHD, and more, Maté refined his perspective on trauma and illness. 

Ultimately, by being present with patients and learning how to ask the right question at the right time, compassionate inquiry was born.

When people who’d observed Maté working at workshops or in therapy sessions asked if he could teach his method, he initially hesitated, believing he didn’t have a specific method to teach. However, after overcoming his fears, he organized a session in Toronto, which proved hugely successful. 

Maté then realized that there was something valuable here; something objective that could be taught to others. People could apply compassionate inquiry in their own way, incorporating it with their psychotherapeutic knowledge.

Today, compassionate inquiry is becoming increasingly popular and has been endorsed by experts around the world. As a teachable approach for therapists and healthcare workers, it enables them to properly address the emotional lives of their clients and patients, creating conditions that promote healing and transformation.

Women's Mental Health Concept. Therapy Session

The central pillars of the approach 

Maté’s considerable experience has led him to the conviction that trauma lies at the root of all human affliction—and the essence of this trauma is a separation from the self. 

Compassionate inquiry entails helping a person reconnect with themselves. At its core lies the question: what’s blocking this connection? It requires having faith in the client’s process and trusting that their own innate wisdom will guide them toward healing. Rather than relying on strict frameworks, it encourages the therapist to trust in their intuition; one born from presence, curiosity, and compassion.


A fundamental aspect of this approach is cultivating compassion for oneself and others. However, this may not be as straightforward as many assume. Maté has pointed out that, at a glance, his approach may not seem compassionate, as he often interrupts the patient, tells them to check in with themselves, or puts a stop to their storytelling. This is because compassion isn’t simply about making people feel good, but guiding people to the truth—it’s only the truth that can liberate them.  

Maté calls this “fierce compassion,” as it can involve leading people through some painful places. It’s also important to remember that, whatever arises, the therapist has compassion for themselves as well as the client. True compassion is only possible when both people are in touch with what’s arising within themselves.


“Rather than making it into a problem, see it as a treasure to be explored, see it as something that is here to teach you, and for that willingness to learn, you need to have the curiosity.”

Compassionate inquiry encourages a gentle, curious, and open-minded attitude when exploring the client’s situation (no stern, silent therapists here!). This kind of gentle curiosity is vital for inquiry, as it helps create a safe space for exploration and introspection. It also shouldn’t be viewed as a bleak affair, but one that can be enjoyable for both the therapist and client. Not in a perverse way, but like an adventure; one that seeks to brave the dark corners of the self to discover the reward of healing.


“The past is important only insofar as it illuminates what’s happening in the present.” 

Maté has called this approach the opposite of psychoanalysis, as, rather than sitting there taking notes, the therapist must be completely present with the client, moment to moment. This means being totally in the moment—practicing non-judgemental awareness of thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. Many therapists have heads full of models and theories, often superimposing this baggage upon their patients without simply being with them. 

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By being present, the practitioner is better placed to observe subtle cues that can offer unique insights into their clients’ real concerns. Gabor has explained how unconscious metaphors can reveal imbalances in relationships. He also emphasizes that even unconsciously employed metaphors can be extremely useful. 

Ultimately, Maté isn’t interested in stories, but in what’s arising in the here and now. After all, it is only through presence that we truly understand one another, and the true power of compassion can be unlocked.


Compassionate inquiry seeks to help clients nurture connections in three primary areas: with oneself, with others, and within a broader context. 

People are encouraged to develop a deeper understanding of their thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations, as well as focus on interpersonal relationships (recognizing how unresolved trauma affects interactions). And finally, on the connection to their community, culture, or environment. 

What’s also crucial is that the therapist themselves connects with the client. Doing so allows for the exploration, awareness, and cultivation of these overlapping connections; revealing and strengthening those that may have been formerly blocked.  

Integration and transformation

This is the true potential of compassionate inquiry. Through the exploration of emotions, beliefs, and patterns, along with the awareness of what’s causing their separation, people are afforded the space to integrate their experiences. This can lead to powerful transformation, not only regarding their self-relationship but also their relationship with the world around them. 

Creating the right conditions for healing

Woman and therapist hugging after sharing recovery progress with aa meeting group

Like many other forms of psychotherapy, compassionate inquiry involves recognizing patterns. Many of our beliefs and behaviors have been shaped by past experiences (particularly unresolved trauma) and it is the therapist’s job to identify these. However, what separates the compassionate inquiry approach from other methods is the importance of consent. This is where noticing cues comes into play. 

To obtain permission to delve deeper into a client’s behavior, the therapist must maintain consent even when discussions become difficult. For example, if a client becomes uncomfortable, they will display cues that can help confirm ongoing consent. Noticing and responding to these cues requires the aforementioned presence and authenticity key to compassionate inquiry.

When the patient feels a level of authenticity from the therapist—a willingness to witness and be present with them—a transformative trust can bloom. Knowing they will be met with understanding and acceptance, people will feel comfortable opening up about what they are experiencing in the moment. 

Final thoughts

While there aren’t currently many studies on the effectiveness of compassionate inquiry, Gabor Maté is one of the leading voices in trauma and addiction treatment. With decades of experience working with patients, and having authored several influential books, few people are as knowledgeable about these subjects. 

Aside from its accessibility, and incorporation of mindfulness, compassionate inquiry has another thing going for it: it isn’t dogmatic—the approach can serve as a valuable supplement to a variety of psychotherapies. 

In our hectic modern world, existing frameworks are (perhaps rightfully) coming under question, and many are suffering from feelings of isolation, along with a lack of social support. Fulfilling, as Maté puts it, “a basic human need” may be the first key step towards healing. 

How Tikvah Lake can help

At Tikvah Lake Recovery, we understand that compassion is a core component of the recovery process. That’s why our personalized treatment plans are tailored to your unique needs. Whether it’s our luxury facility, specialized one-to-one therapy, or 10-day Executive Treatment, we provide an ideal environment for healing, growth, and lasting change.

Like Dr. Gabor Maté, we strive to help you foster a deep connection with yourself and others; one that is crucial for overcoming addiction. Let us help you rediscover your true self and embrace a life free from addiction.

To find out how we can help, please contact us for a confidential chat with one of our team.

About Adam Nesenoff

Adam Nesenoff has been working in recovery for over ten years.

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