Getting to the heart of a problem with Socratic questioning

Questioning is a skill, yet ambiguous and purposeless questions fill our daily lives, wasting time and not eliciting helpful information. The Socratic method solves this problem by asking focused, open-ended questions encouraging participants to reflect.

By surfacing knowledge previously outside our area of understanding, the technique collects valuable perspectives and helps identify courses of action.

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

Socratic questioning is a form of questioning that can be used to pursue thought in many directions and for many purposes, including:

  • to explore complex ideas
  • to get to the truth of things
  • to open up issues and problems
  • to uncover assumptions
  • to analyse concepts
  • to distinguish what we know from what we do not know
  • to follow out logical consequences of the thought
  • to control discussions

Socratic questioning is systematic, disciplined, and profound and usually focuses on fundamental concepts, principles, theories, issues or problems.

Using a series of focused yet open questions, we can unpack our beliefs and those of others.

It takes time to learn and use the Socratic method. Preparation is important.

  • Collate questions that provide meaning and direction in the conversation
  • Use ‘wait time’, allowing participants to compose their thoughts before responding
  • Follow-up on participants’ responses with further questions
  • Ask probing questions that elicit more information
  • Periodically summarise critical points that participants have discussed
  • Let participants discover things on their own through the probing questions you ask

The Socratic questioning technique involves different types of questions that we can group into the following themes:

Get participants to think more about what exactly they are asking or thinking. Ask them to prove the concepts behind their answer or argument. Use basic tell me more questions that get them to go deeper.

  • What do you think is the main issue?
  • Why do you say that?
  • Could you explain further?
  • What do you mean by ______?
  • How does this relate to what we have been talking about?
  • What do we already know about this?
  • Can you give me an example?
  • Are you saying ______ or ______?
  • Can you restate that with more clarity and precision?
  • How do you feel about this?

Challenging participants’ assumptions leads them to think about the presuppositions and unquestioned beliefs they are founding their answer.

  • Is this always the case?
  • What assumptions have you made here?
  • Why would ______ make this assumption?
  • Do all ______ think like this?
  • You are assuming ______?
  • What religious beliefs might you be basing your argument on?
  • How can you verify or disprove that assumption?
  • What exceptions are there to this?
  • Please explain why/how?

When participants give a rationale for their arguments, dig into that reasoning and challenge unthought-through or weakly understood ideas.

  • What evidence do you have for this?
  • Is there reason to doubt this evidence?
  • How do you know this?
  • Why do you think this is true?
  • Can you support this with a reasoned argument?
  • What would be an example?
  • What teachings would support this?
  • By what reasoning did you come to that conclusion?
  • Are these reasons good enough?
  • How might it be refuted?
  • On what authority are you basing your argument?

Most arguments are from a particular position, so attack that position. Show that there are other, equally valid viewpoints.

  • How else could you answer this?
  • What is the counter-argument?
  • What is an alternative?
  • What are you implying by that?
  • Who might see this differently? Why?
  • Another view is ______. Does this seem reasonable to you?
  • How might ______ answer this?
  • What is the difference between ______ and ______?
  • Why is this ______ better than ______?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of ______?
  • How are ______ and ______ ideas alike? How are they different?
  • What might someone who believed ______ think?

The argument that participants give may have logical implications that can be forecast. Do these make sense? Are they desirable?

  • Then what would happen?
  • What would happen if everyone did/believed this?
  • What would happen if ______ didn’t do this?
  • What would happen if ______ happened?
  • What are the implications of ______?
  • How does ______ affect ______?
  • How does ______ fit with what we learned before?
  • Why is ______ important?

And you can also get reflexive about the whole thing, turning the question in on itself. Use participants’ attacks against themselves.

  • What was the point of asking that question?
  • Why is this question important?
  • Why do you think I asked this question?
  • Am I making sense? Why not?
  • What else might I ask?
  • What does that mean?
  • What other questions could I ask?

By using Socratic questioning, we can promote independent thinking in our participants. It is an effective way to explore ideas in depth and can be used in many situations, from product development to teaching in the classroom.

Have you used Socratic questioning in your work? It would be great to hear about your experiences.

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