Socratic Questioning in Psychology: Examples and Techniques

socratic questioningThe philosopher Socrates is something of an enigma.

Condemned to death in 399BC and leaving no written works, we rely extensively on the writings of his pupil—and philosophical heavyweight—Plato (Honderich, 2005).

Perhaps Socrates’ most significant legacy is his contribution to the art of conversation, known as Socratic Questioning. In which, rather than the teacher filling the mind of the student, both are responsible for pushing the dialogue forward and uncovering truths (Raphael & Monk, 2003).

And yet, what could a 2500-year old approach to inquiry add to the toolkit of the teacher, psychotherapist, and coach?

Well, it turns out, quite a lot.

In this article, we explore the definition of Socratic Questioning and how we apply it in education, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and coaching. We then identify techniques, examples of good questions, and exercises that promote better, more productive dialogue.

Socratic Questioning Defined

Many of us fail to recognize questioning as a skill. And yet—whether in education or therapy—vague, purposeless questions, have a rather aimless quality, wasting time, and failing to elicit useful information (Neenan, 2008).

The Socratic method—often described as the cornerstone of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy—solves this inadequacy by asking a series of focused, open-ended questions that encourage reflection (Clark & Egan, 2015). By surfacing knowledge that was previously outside of our awareness, the technique produces insightful perspectives and helps identify positive actions.

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

Socrates

Socratic questioning (sometimes referred to as the Socratic method) involves a disciplined and thoughtful dialogue between two or more people. It is widely used in teaching and counseling to expose and unravel deeply-held values and beliefs that frame and support what we think and say.

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

In education, we can remove—albeit temporarily—the idea of the ‘sage on the stage.’ Instead, the teacher plays dumb, acting as though ignorant of the subject. The student, rather than remaining passive, actively helps push the dialogue forward.

Rather than teaching in the conventional sense, there is no lesson plan, and often no pre-defined goal; the dialogue can take its path, remaining open-ended between teacher and student.

The Socratic method is used in coaching—with, or without, a clear goal in mind—to probe our deepest thoughts. A pre-determined goal is useful when there are time pressures, but can leave the client feeling that the coach has their own agenda, or has nothing to learn from the discussion (Neenan, 2008).

In guided discovery—in the absence of a clear goal—questions (such as, “can you be made to feel inferior by someone else’s laughter?”) are asked with genuine curiosity. Here, the coach gently encourages the client to look at the bigger picture and see other options for tackling an issue.

Ultimately, both approaches have the goal of changing minds—while one is coach-led, the other is client-led—and the coach or therapist may need to move on a continuum between the two.

 

What Is Socratic Questioning in CBT and Therapy?

Socratic questioning is critical to successful Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (Clark & Egan, 2015). Indeed, in CBT, where the focus is on modifying thinking to facilitate emotional and behavioral change, the technique is recognized as helping clients define problems, identify the impact of their beliefs and thoughts, and examine the meaning of events (Beck & Dozois, 2011).

The use of the Socratic method by CBT therapists helps clients become aware of, and in turn, modify processes that perpetuate their difficulties. The subsequent shift in perspective and the accompanying re-evaluation of information and thoughts can be hugely beneficial.

It replaces the didactic—or teaching—based approach and promotes the value of reflective questioning. Indeed, several controlled trials have demonstrated its effectiveness in dealing with a wide variety of psychological disorders.

While there is no universally accepted definition of the Socratic Method in CBT, it can be seen as an umbrella term for using questioning to “clarify meaning, elicit emotion and consequences, as well as to gradually create insight or explore alternative action,” (James, Morse, & Howarth, 2010).

It is important to note that the approach, when used in CBT, must remain non-confrontational, and instead guide discovery, in an open, interested manner, leading to enlightenment and insight (Clark & Egan, 2015).

You will find that Socratic questions are usually (modified from Neenan, 2008):

Attributes of Socratic Questions Description
Concise, directed, and clear The attention remains on the client and should avoid jargon and reduce confusion.
Open, yet with purpose The client is invited to actively engage, with a clear rationale behind each question.
Focused but tentative The focus is on the issue under discussion, yet does not assume the client has the answer.
Neutral The questioning does not suggest there is a correct or preferred answer.

 

Above all else, it is essential to remember that Socratic questioning should be confusion-free.

 

How To Do Socratic Questioning

How to do socratic questioningA fruitful dialogue—for teacher and student, or therapist and client—using Socratic questioning is a shared one.

Each participant must actively participate and take responsibility for moving the discussion forward.

The best environment, according to Professor Rob Reich, is one of ‘productive discomfort,’ but in the absence of fear and panic (Reich, 2003).

There should be no opponents, and no one playing ‘devil’s advocate’ or testing the other.

Instead, it would be best if you remained open-minded and prepared to both listen and learn.

 

Guidance

Some guidance is suggested to perform Socratic questioning effectively:

Advice for the counselor or teacher
Plan significant questions to inform an overall structure and direction without being too prescriptive.
Allow time for the student or client to respond to the questions without feeling hurried.
Stimulate the discussion with probing questions that follow on from the responses given.
Invite elaboration and facilitate self-discovery through questioning.
Keep the dialogue focused, specific, and clearly worded.
Regularly summarize what has been said.
Pose open questions rather than yes/no questions.
Avoid, or re-word, questions that are vague, ambiguous, or beyond the level of the listener’s understanding.

 

For a student—and equally for a client during coaching or therapy—it is useful to understand what is expected:

Advice for the student
Participate actively and thoughtfully.
Answer clearly and succinctly.
Address the whole class (where appropriate.)

 

To be the ideal companion for Socratic questioning, you need to be genuinely curious, willing to take the time and energy to unpack beliefs, and able to logically and dispassionately review contradictions and inconsistencies.

 

15 Examples of Socratic Questioning

When used effectively, Socratic questioning is a compelling technique for exploring issues, ideas, emotions, and thoughts. It allows misconceptions to be addressed and analyzed at a deeper level than routine questioning.

You will need to use several types of questions, with students or clients, to engage and elicit a detailed understanding:

Question Type Examples
Clarification What do you mean when you say X?
Could you explain that point further? Can you provide an example?
Challenging Assumptions Is there a different point of view?
What assumptions are we making here? Are you saying that?
Evidence and reasoning Can you provide an example that supports what you are saying?
Can we validate that evidence? Do we have all the information we need?
Alternative viewpoints Are there alternative viewpoints?
How could someone else respond, and why?
Implications and consequences How would this affect someone?
What are the long-term implications of this?
Challenging the question What do you think was important about that question?
What would have been a better question to ask?

 

Students and clients should be encouraged to use the technique on themselves to extend and reinforce the effect of Socratic questioning and promote more profound levels of understanding.

 

Using Socratic Questioning in Coaching

Coaching is “the art of facilitating the performance, learning, and development of another” (Downey, 2003). To reach a deeper understanding of a client’s goals, core values, and impediments to change, a coach must elicit information that is relevant, insightful, and ultimately valuable.

And yet, not all questions are equally useful in coaching.

Vague or aimless questions are costly in terms of time and will erode the client’s confidence in the coaching process (Neenan, 2008).

Asking open-ended questions helps clients reflect and generate knowledge of which they may have previously been unaware. Such insights result in clients reaching new, or more balanced, perspectives and identify actions to overcome difficulties.

However, a word of caution.

Coaches should avoid becoming ‘stuck’ entirely in the Socratic mode. Complete reliance on Socratic questions will lead to robotic and predictable sessions. Indeed, at times, the therapist may require closed questions to push a point and offer some direction (Neenan, 2008).

 

Applications In The Classroom: 2 Examples

Socratic questioning in the classroomSocratic questioning requires the student to identify, then defend, their position regarding their thoughts and beliefs.

The student is asked to account for themselves—rather than recite facts—including their motivations and bias upon which their views are based.

Discussion is less about facts, or what others think about the facts, and more what the student concludes about them. The underlying beliefs of each participant in the conversation are under review rather than abstract propositions.

And, according to science, it works very well. Research has confirmed that Socratic questioning provides students with positive support in enhancing critical thinking skills (Chew, Lin, & Chen, 2019).

 

1. Socratic Circles

Socratic Circles can be particularly useful for gaining an in-depth understanding of a specific text, or, as follows, to examine the questioning technique itself and the abilities of the group using it:

  • Students are asked to read a chosen text or passage.
  • Guidance is given to analyze it and take notes.
  • Students are arranged in two circles – an inner one and an outer one.
  • The inner circle is told to read and discuss the text with one another for the next ten minutes.
  • Meanwhile, the outer circle is told to remain silent and observe the inner circle’s discussion.
  • Once completed, the outer circle is given a further ten minutes to evaluate the inner circle’s dialogue and provide feedback.
  • The inner-circle listens and takes notes.
  • Later the roles of the inner and outer circles are reversed.

Observing the Socratic method can provide a valuable opportunity to learn about the process of questioning.

 

2. Socratic Seminars

Socratic seminars are the true embodiment of Socrate’s belief in the power of good questioning.

  • The teacher uses Socratic questions to engage discussion around a targeted learning goal – often a text that invites authentic inquiry.
  • Guidelines are provided to the students to agree to fair participation, including example questions and behaviors for thinking, interacting, and listening within the group.
  • Learning is promoted by encouraging critical analysis and reasoning to find deep answers to questions.
  • The teacher may define some initial open-ended questions but do not adopt the role of a leader.
  • Once over, a review of the techniques used, and the group’s effectiveness at using them, should be performed and learnings fed into future seminars.

It takes time to learn and use the Socratic method effectively and should be considered a necessary part of the group’s overall journey.

 

3 Helpful Techniques

1. The Five W’s

At times we all need pointers regarding the questions to ask. The, misleadingly named, 5W’s—who, what, when, where, why, and how—are widely used for basic information gathering, from journalism to policing.

5W’s (and an H)
Who is involved?
What happened?
When did it happen?
Where did it happen?
Why did it happen?
How did it happen?

 

The 5W’s (and 1 H) provides a useful set of open questions, inviting the listener to answer and elaborate on the facts.

 

2. Socratic Method Steps

Simply stated, Socratic questioning follows the steps below.

  1. Understand the belief
    Ask the person to state clearly their belief(s)/argument.

  2. Sum up the person’s argument
    Playback what they said to clarify your understanding of their position.

  3. Ask for evidence
    Ask open questions to elicit further knowledge and uncover assumptions, misconceptions, inconsistencies, and contradictions, e.g.
    – Upon what assumption is this belief based?
    – What evidence is there to support this argument?

  4. Challenge their assumptions
    If contradictions, inconsistencies, exceptions, or counterexamples are identified, then ask the person to either disregard the belief, or to restate it more precisely.

  5. Repeat the process again, if required
    Unless both parties accept the restated belief, the process is repeated.

The order may not always proceed as above. However, the steps provide an insight into how the questioning could proceed. Repeat the process to drill down into the core of an issue, thought, or belief.

 

3. Best Friend Role Play

Ask the client to talk to you as though they were discussing similar experiences to a friend (or someone else they care about.)

People are often better at arguing against their negative thinking when they are talking to someone they care about.

For example, “Your best friend tells you that they are upset by a difficult conversation or situation, in which they find themselves. What would you tell them? Talk to me as though I am that person.”

 

4 Exercises and Worksheets For Your Sessions

1. Socratic Question Types

The Socratic Method relies on a variety of question types to provide the most complete and correct information for exploring issues, ideas, emotions, and thoughts.

Use a mixture of the following question types for the most successful engagement.

 

Questions regarding an initial question or issue Answers
What is significant about this question? |
Is this a straightforward question to answer? |
Why do you think that? |
Are there any assumptions we can take from this question? |
Is there another important question that follows on from this one? |

 

Questions about assumptions Answers
Why would someone assume that X? |
What are we assuming here? |
Is there a different assumption here? |
Are you saying that X? |

 

Questions of viewpoint Answers
Are there alternative views? |
What might someone who thought X think? |
How would someone else respond, and why? |

 

Questions of clarification Answers
What do you mean when you say X? |
Can you rephrase and explain differently? |
What is the main issue here? |
Can you expand that point further? |

 

Questions of implication and consequence Answers
Why do you think this is the case? |
Is there any other information needed? |
What led you to that belief? |
Are there any reasons to doubt the evidence? |

 

Questions of evidence and reasoning Answers
Can you provide an example? |
Why do you think this is the case? |
Is there any other information needed? |
What led you to that belief? |
Are there any reasons to doubt the evidence? |

 

Questions regarding origin Answers
Have you heard this from elsewhere? |
Have you always felt this way? |
What caused you to feel that way? |

 

2. Cognitive Restructuring

Ask readers to consider and record answers to several Socratic questions to help challenge their irrational thoughts.

 

3. Life Coaching Questions

Refer to 100 Most Powerful Life Coaching Questions on our blog for in-depth examples of open-ended questions for use as a coach.

 

4. Art of Socratic Questioning Checklist

While observing others leading Socratic discussions, use this questioning checklist to capture thoughts, and provide feedback.

 

5 Best Books On The Topic

To learn more about Socratic Questioning (and good questioning in general) check out these five books available on Amazon:

  1. The Socratic Method of Psychotherapy – James Overholser (Amazon)
  2. The Thinker’s Guide to Socratic Questioning – Richard Paul & Linda Elder (Amazon)
  3. Thinking Through Quality Questioning: Deepening Student Engagement – Elizabeth D. Sattes & Jackie A. Walsh (Amazon)
  4. Techniques for Coaching and Mentoring – Natalie Lancer & David Clutterbuck & David Megginson  (Amazon)
  5. The Art of Interactive Teaching: Listening, Responding, Questioning – Selma Wassermann (Amazon)

 

A Take-Home Message

Socratic questioning provides you with a potent method for examining ideas logically and determining their validity.

Used successfully, in education or therapy, it challenges your (possibly incorrect) assumptions and misunderstandings, allowing you to revisit and revise what you think and say.

However, like any tool, it is only as good as the person who uses it.

Socratic questioning requires an absence of ego and a level playing field for all who take part. If you are willing to use logical, open questions without a fixed plan, and prepared to practice, the technique is an effective way of exploring ideas in depth.

The theory, techniques, and exercises we shared will help you to push the boundaries of understanding, often into unchartered waters, and unravel and explore assumptions and misunderstandings behind our thoughts.

  • Beck, A.T., & Dozois, D.J. (2011). Cognitive therapy: Current status and future directions. Annual Review of Medicine, 62, 397–409.
  • Chew, S.W., Lin, I.H., & Chen, N.S. (2019). Using Socratic Questioning Strategy to Enhance Critical Thinking Skills of Elementary School Students. 2019 IEEE 19th International Conference on Advanced Learning Technologies (ICALT).
  • Clark, G. I., & Egan, S.J. (2015). The Socratic Method in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: A Narrative Review. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 39(6), 863-879.
  • Downey, M. (2003). Effective coaching: Lessons from the coach’s coach (2nd ed.). New York: Thomson/ Texere.
  • Honderich, T. (2005). The Oxford companion to philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • James, I.A., Morse, R., & Howarth, A. (2010). The science and art of asking questions in cognitive therapy. Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 38(01), 83–93.
  • Neenan, M. (2008). Using Socratic Questioning in Coaching. Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 27(4), 249-264.
  • Padesky, C.A. (1993). Socratic questioning: Changing minds or guiding discovery? Paper presented at the European Congress of Behavioural and Cognitive Therapies, London, September 24.
  • Raphael, F., & Monk, R. (2003). The great philosophers. London, UK: Routledge.
  • Reich, R. (2003). The Socratic Method: What it is and How to Use it in the Classroom. Retrieved June 10, 2020, from https://tomprof.stanford.edu/posting/810

About the Author

Jeremy Sutton, Ph.D., is a writer and researcher studying the human capacity to push physical and mental limits. His work always remains true to the science beneath, his real-world background in technology, his role as a husband and parent, and his passion as an ultra-marathoner.

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