How to Use Socratic Questioning to Help People Find Their Own Answers

Socrates was a very wise man; perhaps one of the wisest men who ever lived. But his greatest contribution to philosophy was not his knowledge as such; rather it was his ability to ask good questions of others.

People would travel great distances to sit at his feet. They would come with questions or issues that they needed to be addressed. But they would not receive advice or answers to their questions. Instead, Socrates would reply by asking a good question of his own.

He would ask a question that elicited an insight from the questioner. Essentially, he was inviting the person to find the answer to their own question. By asking a thought-provoking question, Socrates was effectively holding up a mirror. By asking a logical series of questions, he would lead people to find their own ‘aha’ moment or insight about the way forward.

They would be discovering wisdom within themselves of which they had been previously unaware. This was Socrates’ greatest gift.

Socratic Questioning is Still Relevant Today

These days, Socratic questioning is a very popular mentoring style, found widely across all sectors of society. Often it happens naturally, for example, when interacting with children.

Sometimes it needs to be a little more deliberate and structured, such as when teaching teenagers to consider the risks of certain socially exciting opportunities. It is far better to ask what the risks are if they stay out late, rather than to simply list the dangers for them.

During a formal debriefing after a sporting event, a coach might ask players, ‘And what have you learned from the game this afternoon?

Emergency services will also de-brief in a similar way after a callout. The team leader will elicit a critical review by asking the team what they thought they did well, what could have gone better and what else they might try next time. The team will be doing all the thinking. The leader is simply eliciting the ideas from them by asking good questions.

This process of inducing wisdom in others through asking good questions has now become the cornerstone of many professional interactions. Some professions where Socratic questioning can be applied include:

Teaching - Allow Your Students to Discover Their Own Wisdom

Socratic questioning is obviously a very common method in teaching. Instead of telling schoolchildren about some aspect of life, a teacher will ask them. If they struggle to find a reply, then a series of supplementary questions will gradually guide them to find the answer.

In this way, schoolchildren are led to find their own answers, which they subsequently embrace as their own. They also learn to think critically along the way.

Teachers are encouraged to ask questions in a progressive series that lift up students’ replies from the level of simple knowledge, to explore comprehension as a higher form of learning outcome.

Each of these levels of questioning will induce a greater sense of wisdom in the student, as they search to find the answers within themselves rather than simply reiterating learned facts.

Psychology and Therapy - Uncover Troubling Patterns of Thought

Clinical psychologists will also use Socratic questioning to systematically uncover a client’s distressing pattern of thought. They will ask a series of ‘why’ questions until a key ‘underlying assumption’ is reached that underpins the negative thinking.

The idea is that a whole range of negative thoughts emanates from a core dysfunctional belief that feels true to the client but is not helpful to them. By holding up a mirror to invite reflection, the psychologist induces a transformational ‘aha’ moment for the client and new insight is gained.

All therapy techniques can be seen as attempts to induce a new ‘wisdom’ for the client. Invariably, by asking challenging questions, we will promote thoughtful reflection with a consequent realization that things could be different.

Business Consultancy - Figure Out Where Change Needs to Occur

An external business consultant will use a very similar questioning process to induce change. The consultant will usually know very little about the company’s business, but will be skilled at asking the right questions. They will almost deliberately adopt the position of a naive enquirer.

The application of Socratic questioning includes but is not limited to the mentioned professions. There are many other areas where this type of questioning can come in handy.

The process is the same, but the language is intriguingly different. While psychologists like to conceptualize their questions as leading their client ‘downwards’ towards an underlying core insight, business consultants prefer the notion of ‘lifting up’ the analysis to a conceptual overview.

They talk of ‘helicopter views’ and ‘blue skies’ visioning. They like to see over the horizon and, in general, use far more expansive metaphors in their work. They talk about stepping back and working ‘on’ the business rather than ‘in’ the business. They will ask questions such as:

  • If we could look down on your business from on high, what would we see?
  • If we could fast forward to five years from now, where would we be?
  • If we could dream of a perfect world, what would your business look like?

The core technique is to ask good questions that provoke insight and wisdom, rather than to give good advice. This is the essence of the Socratic method.

Chris-Skellett-Official-Photo1-200x300Chris Skellett, a psychologist with over 30 years of experience, is the author of “The Power of the Second Question - Finding Simple Truths for Complex Lives."

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