The Socratic Method and How to Use it as a Questioning Technique
The Socratic Method, as outlined in Plato’s Thaeatetus, is a process of questioning that inspires critical thinking. Primarily the method was designed for moral and philosophical enquiry but the technique has been used in many other fields. The strength of the Socratic approach lies in its ability to challenge assumptions and negative thought patterns.
Directive or non-directive?
The problem with using the Socratic method in some contexts (for example in coaching) comes from its emphasis being more of the questioner than the questionee. It assumes that the person asking the questions knows the correct answer. The person initiating the question takes on a leading role as they are trying to challenge certain ideas, evoke particular thoughts or get the subject to establish a particular logical viewpoint. Subsequently the technique can be seen as creating leading, loaded or weighted questions and as a result can be largely convergent in the thinking it inspires.
Therefore even though it is non-directive in style it is still quite directive in its application. For a leader and manager it can be very useful when helping someone to see an error in their work, thinking or behaviour. Instead of directly criticising or pointing out the fault, using the Socratic method you can help a person to see the illogical or erroneous nature of their approach.
A Framework for Socratic Questions
Here is an example 5 step framework for this type of questioning:
1. Sum up the person’s view-point or argument.
Get them to clarify their position and try paraphrasing or repeating it back to them.
2. Ask them to provide their evidence.
Find out why they are thinking or acting in that way. Discover the facts, beliefs or assumptions that underpin their standpoint.
3. Challenge their assumption.
Use further questions to show the fallacy of any wrong assumptions. At times you may need to provide other evidence but try and structure this as a question too if possible. Try and get them to find an exception (or if necessary provide one) that proves their own theory wrong. Discover and explore this circumstance to discover new, better thinking.
4. Get them to reformulate their position.
Once they see that they have a wrong assumption, get them to adapt or renew their thinking and then re-state it.
5. Start the process again, if necessary.
Now they have a new view point you can go back to the start of the process, assess their thinking and challenge any further wrong assumptions. This iterative or dialectic process helps to drill down to the core of the issue.
Watch-outs when using the approach
One danger to this method is that the conversation can descend into argument. Debating takes a Socratic approach and can be helpful in considering different stances, but when people are divided in view point this can descend into just rhetoric. The listening and discussion is lost. This is often what happens in political debates.
At worst this is an exercise in confirmation bias rather than enquiry. The resulting argument undermines potential learning that should take place. Therefore this descent should be avoided.
My advice is to remain humble. As you look at evidence for and against a position it may turn out that the wrong assumption lies with you. I have certainly found that out before! Remember the advice of Stephen Covey, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
Nancy Kline uses a similar process (in terms of steps) to the Socratic method in her Thinking Partnerships. The difference is that the Thinking Environment approach and the nature of the questions used makes it less directive or confrontational and therefore better for coaching.
For more on the development of questioning techniques see Beyond the 5Ws: Ask Questions like a Philosopher.
Ballif, M and Moran, M G (2005) Classical Rhetorics and Rhetoricians: Critical Studies and Sources, Westport: Praeger
Covey, S R (1989) The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, London: Simon and Schuster
Kline, N (1999) Time to Think. London: Ward Lock
Waterfield, R (trans.) (1987) Plato’s Thaeatetus, London: Penguin