Socratic Questioning: Developing Your Team, Gaining Clarity and Commitment

-Raymond P. Harrison, Ph.D.-

The term Socratic Questioning comes from the ancient Greek Philosopher Socrates who gained fame as a teacher, not by giving out facts but by asking probing questions that forced his pupils to think through issues on their own. This method not only helps individuals or groups arrive at solutions and insights, the process itself fosters  productive ways of thinking through issues.

Below is a list of types of questions that often prove useful when you are trying to get an individual or group to think through an issue. They can be used in a “guided questioning” way in which you and a team can think through an issue. In some instances a team leader may  actually know the answer but he or she may want the group to think through the issues as a developmental exercise. These kinds of questions can also be used when it really is not clear what the answer to an issue is and you need to harness the collective intellect of others. In either case, using Socratic-style questions is a great way of developing others: it teaches them a way of thinking through issues and it forces them to  think for themselves and develop from the experience. It can also be an inoffensive way of challenging ideas or assumptions of a boss or colleagues without appearing to be dismissive or confrontational about their ideas.

There is a large difference between a group that is compliant and a team that is committed. Commitment is most likely to occur when the  members of a group feel as if they had input into a plan of action. A good plan that is “owned” by everyone on the team is usually better than a perfect plan that is dictated from on high.

  1. Clarifying Questions:

To challenge others to  prove basic concepts and ideas behind arguments Examples: What examples can you provide? What do you mean by…?

  1. Questions that probe assumptions:

To query others’ beliefs concerning their arguments. Examples: How did you arrive at those assumptions? What if we looked at it this way? Is there any other way of interpreting this situation?

  1. Probing for reasons and evidence:

To delve deeper into supporting claims others use for their arguments. Examples: How do we know this? What is the cause? Can the evidence be refuted? Could any other conclusions be drawn from this data?

  1. Questions that probe perspective:

Look at the argument from another perspective. Examples: What is another way of looking at this? What are strengths and weaknesses of our perspective? How are other people likely to see this?

  1. Questions that speculate about  consequences:

To identify consequences and determine if they are desirable; use as others develop arguments and logical consequences become foreseeable. Examples: What’s the worst that could happen? What’s the most likely outcome? What is the best thing that could happen? If we follow your argument, what are the consequences? Are the consequences desirable?

  1. Questioning the question itself:

To probe the intent of asking the original question. Examples:  Are we framing this issue the wrong way? Why did you ask the question? To what point are you driving? Are we asking the right question? Are our basic assumptions correct? What prompted your question?