How to facilitate self-discovery and uncover knowledge using Socratic questioning

Socratic questioning is a technique used by many therapists, coaches, interviewers, lawyers and police officers as a way to guide interviews and uncover knowledge. I discovered Socratic questioning when I began working as a proposal writer as a way to gather information relevant for a proposal submission. As a coach, the Socratic questioning method is something that I use to motivate my clients to find the answers to their problems. As a manager or leader of teams, you can use Socratic questioning to help your team members uncover new knowledge, define their challenges better and use their own resources to overcome their challenges.

Different questions, different types of thinking

The basic components of Socratic questioning are systematic questioning, inductive reasoning, and universal definitions. I’ll cover inductive reasoning and universal definitions in a later article. Here I will focus on systematic questioning, as it is the most widely used component focussing on a progressive series of questions that are used to shape someone’s thought process.

There are generally seven different types of question formats that can be used, ranging from simple to complex. Having an understanding of the types of questions is important because the form of a question can influence its effect. People can be influenced to engage in different types of thinking by being asked different types of questions. But to complicate matters, the question formats aren’t entirely distinct, since complex questions can be built from simple questions.

Memory questions

As the term suggests, memory questions help uncover information through recall, such as “When did the problem begin?”, “When was the last time this happened?”. Your goal with memory questions is to uncover information that you can use later.

Translation questions

Here you are challenging people to change their ideas from one form to another parallel form. “What does this mean to you?” “How can we make sense of this?” Translation questions help uncover gaps in knowledge.

Interpretation questions

These types of questions help people uncover relationships between facts, values, skills and generalizations. People learn more when they uncover relationships themselves rather than have these relationships explained to them. The idea is to relate new problems to information already possessed. “How are these two situations similar?”, “Do the problems with X seem similar to any other problem?”.

Application questions

These types of questions help people apply information or skills to a specific problem. They are used to help people implement  information discussed earlier to the current challenge, “What have you tried to solve this problem?”, “What else could you do to solve this problem?”. These questions help bring awareness to information and skills already processed.

Analysis questions

These questions challenge people to solve a problem by breaking it into its parts by bringing awareness to logical thought processes. Analysis questions help people follow the principles of deductive logic and uncover inadequate or illogical thinking. Examples include, “What do you think is causing this problem?”, “What evidence do you have for this?”, “How can you tell if you are right or wrong?”.

Synthesis questions

These questions encourage problem-solving through creative or divergent thinking. You shouldn’t really have a pre-planned answer in mind, rather ask the questions and then allow the answers to take shape. “What other ways could you look at the situation?”, “What possible solutions are there?”.

Evaluation questions

These questions ask people to make a value judgment based on specified standards. With these types of questions, you must first identify the standard, then ask people to compare themselves. For example, “What does it mean to you to be a good leader?”, followed by “How do you feel about yourself as a leader?”. Evaluation questions help people integrate their thoughts and feelings.

Different question types are more useful in different stages of the problem-solving process (problem definition, generation of strategies, goal setting and action planning). Evaluation questions help identify the emotional and judgemental aspects of a challenge, after which memory questions can be used to provide accurate detail and understanding of the challenge. Analysis questions help identify possible causes, solutions and help define the problem. Synthesis questions help uncover possible strategies, while evaluation questions help with decision making and goal setting.

Of course, it isn’t as simple as having a list of question formats and parroting these to your team member or colleague. You should alternate between Socratic and non-Socratic dialogue to avoid overuse and your dialogue becoming too interrogative. You can also rephrase questions as reflections, clarifications or direct statements. It is also important to make all assumptions explicit. Otherwise you risk closing down a line of thinking. There is a difference between asking, “What else could you have done?” and “Could you have done anything else?”. The first will often result in the answer, “I don’t know” or “nothing”, while the second question provokes a search for different answers.

You shouldn’t have a preset agenda or answer you are looking for. Your questions are a guide to facilitate self-discovery and uncover knowledge and insights that the person already has. This helps the person solve the problem and learn the problem-solving process. There is also a questioning process. ou start small with simple questions, helping someone find pieces of the puzzle, slowly building up to more complex questions.

You also use probing and summarising techniques to help nudge people along, identify opportunities and provide focus and direction. These skills don’t develop overnight. Learning to use Socratic questioning requires practice and actively listening to responses. Finally, always remember the power of silence. Novice coaches, leaders and managers sometimes ask too many questions when they are in doubt about what to do or say. Sometimes you need to give people space and time to think.

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