What is Socratic questioning? (Questioning skills)

Long before I learned of the value of Socratic questioning in coaching and counselling, I remember an editor asking me to use Socratic questioning in some writing. Socratic questioning is a way to drive logical argument. It’s helpful in conversations, critical thinking and negotiation. So what is Socratic questioning? (Questioning skills).

This article on Socratic questioning follows an earlier and longer post on questioning skills Why are questions so important? (Questioning skills) (kimtasso.com)

Who was Socrates?

Socrates (470 – 399 BC) was a Greek philosopher – known for his integrity and skill in conversation, teaching and argument. He considered himself “an ignorant inquirer”. He had a profound influence on Western philosophy. Many people wrote about him including Plato and Aristotle.

What is Socratic questioning?

The Socratic method (also known as method of Elenchus, elenctic method or Socratic debate) is a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals. It was originally used as an educational strategy where teachers cross-examined their students. Questions were asked to reveal what the student believed about a topic, whether they grasped a concept well and whether there were any assumptions, weaknesses or gaps in their thought process.

It is defined as using questions to “clarify meaning, elicit emotion and consequences, as well as to gradually create insight or explore alternative action” (James, Morse, & Howarth, 2010).

It is helpful to surface knowledge that was previously outside of our awareness. So it helps to explore limiting beliefs and unpack assumptions. It helps to produce insightful perspectives and identify positive actions.

Essentially, the Socratic method is based on asking questions to stimulate critical thinking. It helps to draw out ideas and underlying presuppositions or assumptions. Critical Thinking and Problem Solving – Some tips (kimtasso.com)

“I know you won’t believe me, but the highest form of human excellence is to question oneself and others” Socrates

Why is Socratic questioning important?

Socratic questioning is an approach where, rather than the “expert” filling the mind of the student/client – both are responsible for pushing the dialogue forward and uncovering truths (Raphael & Monk, 2003). So it helps to create equality in a relationship.

Socratic questioning for conversations

Socratic questioning contributes to the art of conversation. It provides a way to drive dialogue and explore ideas in a structured way. There are several posts about books on conversation skills:

Socratic questioning for coaching

Socratic questioning is often used in coaching. Initially, it’s helpful to learn about a person’s beliefs and (limiting) assumptions of which they may not be aware – Coaching and Consulting skills – Limiting beliefs, approaches to helping (kimtasso.com) . The coach then uses questions to encourage the person to think things through on their own and to come up with solutions and actions themselves (rather than the coach dictating thoughts and actions). Socratic questioning is a way to help people learn for themselves by answering questions. As such, it builds the confidence of the person being coached.

In coaching it is valuable because it empowers the person answering the questions to come up with ideas and answers themselves. This means that they are more likely to accept the ideas whereas they may be resistant to ideas presented by a third party. So it can help with buy-in.

Socratic questioning is also useful in influence and persuasion – when it has the goal of prompting people to think their views, considering alternatives and changing their minds.

Socratic questioning for counselling and therapy

Socratic questioning is also the basis of CBT (Cognitive Based Therapy). It helps people become more aware of their assumptions and beliefs. And helps them challenge (and change) their thoughts by looking at the evidence that supports or refutes their beliefs. Therapists use Socratic questioning because it helps to surface knowledge that was previously outside of our awareness. To expose and unravel deeply held values and beliefs that frame and support what we think and say.

In CBT (Cognitive Based Therapy), where the focus is on modifying thinking to facilitate emotional and behavioural change, it is recognized as helping clients define problems, identify the impact of their beliefs and thoughts and examine the meaning of events (Beck & Dozois, 2011).

Socratic questioning is used by counsellors and therapists in Cognitive-Based Therapy (CBT). In essence, it involves asking different types of questions:

  • Clarification questions
  • Source questions (its origins)
  • Exploring assumptions more deeply
  • Questions about reasons and evidence
  • Questions about situations which counter the assumption or belief
  • Implication and consequence questions
  • Viewpoint questions

How do I use Socratic questioning?

Ask a series of focused, open-ended questions that encourage reflection (Clark & Egan, 2015). For notes on reflection: Marketing Continuing Professional Development (CPD) (kimtasso.com)

You may or may not have a specific goal in mind when you ask questions.

Socratic questions are:

  • Concise, directed and clear
  • Open, yet with purpose
  • Focused but tentative
  • Neutral

It may help you to plan significant questions so that you have an overall structure and direction without being prescriptive.

You need to allow time for people to think about and reflect on their answers.

You may need to probe some answers to obtain more detail on the response to a question. To encourage people to elaborate on or expand their responses.

And it is helpful to regularly summarise what has been said to keep the overall theme in mind.

You can use several types of questions to engage and elicit a detailed understanding:

  • Seek clarification (e.g. Would you explain that further? Can you share a specific example?)
  • Assess motive and concepts (e.g. Why are you asking that question?)
  • Be open-ended (e.g. What alternatives do you think there might be?)
  • Probe assumptions (e.g. What assumptions are you making?)
  • Challenge the question (e.g. How could you frame that question differently?)
  • Examine evidence (e.g. What data do you have to support that?)
  • Explore reasoning (e.g. Can you talk me through your thinking process?)
  • Prompt awareness of alternative viewpoints (e.g. What might other people think?)
  • Consider implications and consequences – systemic thinking (e.g. What would be the impact on…? What might happen if…?))

Steps in the Socratic questioning method:

  1. Understand the belief – ask people to state clearly the belief or argument
  2. Summarise the belief or argument – repeat back your understanding
  3. Request evidence – use questions to obtain and explore evidence
  4. Challenge assumptions – examine inconsistencies, exceptions and possible alternatives
  5. Repeat the process if required

But remember, you need to build rapport, trust and a relationship before you dive in with your Socratic questions. I wrote about the building blocks of relationships (empathy, congruence and universal positive regard) last summer A general law of interpersonal relationships? (kimtasso.com).

And listening skills are the other important part of the equation: Active Listening (Video) (kimtasso.com)

Further information

For therapists : Socratic Questioning in Psychology: Examples and Techniques (positivepsychology.com) and Socratic Questioning (changingminds.org)

For writers:  Socratic method: writing tips for any student (bestcustomwriting.com)

For salespeople: A Socratic Approach to Successful Selling | AMA (amanet.org)

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