'Education is not the filling of a pail, but the kindling of a fire.' (Socrates)
Questions that make you think hard. Socrates, a Greek philosopher who specialised in ethics, created a revolutionary method of education based on posing questions rather than prescribing answers. His rigorous and structured approach is still commonly used today to: ‘explore complex ideas; get to the truth of things; open up issues and problems; uncover assumptions; analyse concepts; distinguish what we know from what we do not know; or follow out logical consequences of thought.’ (Paul & Elder).
As such, the Socratic method can be an immensely powerful tool in leadership, coaching, mentoring, training and facilitation (e.g. in action learning). It can elicit profound discoveries and learning and, by doing so, create significant shifts in thinking, feeling and behaviour. It is widely used in psychology-based fields including cognitive behavioural therapy. We see parallels too in domains including Jesus’ teaching approach in the New Testament (see: Conrad Gempf, Jesus Asked, 2003).
Richard Paul and Linda Elder (see: Thinkers’ Guide to Socratic Questioning, 2016) identified 6 different types of Socratic questions that can be posed in sequence to help an individual or a group think through an issue. The 6 types focus on: clarifications; assumptions; rationales; perspectives; implications; meta questions. (James Bowman offers a very useful sample template with examples of related questions here: The Six Types of Socratic Questions).
If you’re interested to read more about cognitive-behavioural approaches to coaching, learning and leadership that draw on Socratic questioning methods, have a glance at: Cognitive Behavioural Coaching; Fresh Thinking; Gestalt Meets Cognitive Behavioural Coaching. If you would like to learn more about eliciting and posing questions more broadly as a learning approach, see: Art of Discovery; In the Question; Good Question; Behind the Question; The Silent Way.
When have you used Socratic questioning at work? How did you do it? What impacts did it have?
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