Socratic Questioning

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socratic questions

socratic questions After reading the book The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement by Eliyahu Goldratt, I found myself wanting to learn more about two things.  One, something known as the theory of constraints (TOC).  Two, the Socratic method or using Socratic questioning.  I’ll leave TOC for another post.  This time around, I’ll focus on Socratic questioning.  I started asking my client’s vendor a series of Socratic questions, with some surprising results.   But first, what is Socratic Questioning?  From our old friend Wikipedia:

Socratic questioning is disciplined 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 analyze concepts, to distinguish what we know from what we don’t know, and to follow out logical implications of thought.

The key to distinguishing Socratic questioning from questioning per se is that Socratic questioning is systematic, disciplined, and deep, and usually focuses on foundational concepts, principles, theories, issues, or problems.

Using my client’s vendor as a guinea pig, I decided to give this a go.  Rather than just accepting what appeared to be a half-baked answers, I started to ask more of the same questions.

I asked questions like

  • What do you mean by that?
  • Could you help me understand this a little more?
  • Is this always the case?
  • Why do you think that this assumption is true in this case?
  • Why do you say that?
  • What is there reason to doubt the supporting data?
  • What is the counter argument for this?
  • What is another way of looking at this?
  • But if that happened, what else would happen?
  • How does this affect that?

Though I’ve always asked a lot of questions, I’ve never tried to be so systematic or disciplined in the process.  I’m frustrating the hell out of the vendor with all of the open ended questions.  But I think the client is getting better answers.  I hate to see someone ask a complicated question, only to get a yes or no answer.  I want to understand why someone is doing what they are doing.  Hopefully, by asking these types questions, the vendor will start to wonder why as well.

Have you used Socratic questioning before?  What was your outcome?

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2 Replies to “Socratic Questioning”

    1. Thanks!
      I’ve found that when you’re in a comfortable situation and you’re all working toward a common goal, this type of questioning goes a lot farther. But, when dealing with a vendor, it sometimes comes off sounding a little condescending.

      I use the question “Could you help me understand this a little more?” all of the time. Asking for help usually prevents the vendor from posturing and becoming defensive.

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