Socratic Questioning – Not Just For The Greeks

She’s sitting there, jaw wide open. The cogs are whirring behind staring eyes.

You just zinged her with the perfect question.

“I never thought of it like that”

“I thought I knew what I thought”

“I can’t possibly answer that”

Wait. Let the cogs whirr. See the new neural connections being made.

It doesn’t happen often, does it? But when it does… good questions hit hard.

Learning to coach is about developing those questions.

And have you ever noticed – they’re rarely the complicated ones? Political interviews, with their three-part, confrontational, loaded questions, rarely get to deeper thinking.

But then, that’s not their job. They’re there to provoke.

You, on the other hand… you want to get to deeper thinking, don’t you? Of course you do.

So what makes a good question?

It all goes back to the Greeks.

Socrates was one of the most remarkable thinkers of all time. Though little remains of his writing (just one verse of poetry survives) his methods of drawing out deeper thinking from his students and fellow debaters still form the bedrock of coaching today.

Not bad for a famously ugly ex-soldier who only ever left Athens to fight people.

Coaching questions – not just for coaches

These coaching questions are for everyone. They avoid confrontation but they’re challenging. They’re respectful. They’re simple. They provoke thought, not defence.

As a leader, as a manager, as a friend, as a lover, you need these questions. 

Remember them, practise them, develop them, and more than anything else, trust them.

And never ask more than one at a time. Don’t be a political pundit.

For the rest of this blog I’m going to use ‘coachee’ for whoever you’re talking to. Substitute ‘leader, manager, friend, lover, employee, client’ as you wish.

The joy of six

Almost everything we know about Socrates, we know through Plato and Xenophon. Plato transcribed many of Socrates’ debates and conversations, many of them in suspiciously high levels of detail. Socrates taught his students to:

So what’s behind these six?

Clarify concepts

Plato’s Symposium (the link is to a free download of the book) is based on a series of speeches in praise of Eros, the god of love and desire. Socrates, contrary chap that he is, decides not to give a speech in praise of the god, but to question what it is that his fellow diners are talking about. He wants to clarify the concept.

We use a lot of words without ever questioning what they really mean. For example:

‘I want loyalty from my team’

What does loyalty look like? How will you know when you’ve got it?

Think about words like ‘loyalty’. Words like ‘love’. ‘Trust’. ‘Respect’. They’re words that only mean something because of the actions that go with them. If someone acts in a way that we associate with ‘loyalty’ we call them ‘loyal’.

These are behaviours, frozen into nouns.

We call them ‘nominalisations’, and we use these without ever wondering whether the person we’re talking to uses these words to mean the same thing.

And we never question how we use those words either.

As an experiment, ask yourself how you’d distinguish between:

What are the behaviours you’d expect to see?

How could you measure it?

How would you know if someone was moving from one nominalisation to another?

You can dig into these concepts by questions such as;

‘Tell me more’

‘What do you mean by …?’

‘Give me an example of …’

‘Tell me what you mean without using the word …’

Probe assumptions

We go through life with unquestioned beliefs. They’re useful.

We believe the sun will rise tomorrow.

We believe that our car won’t spontaneously explode.

We believe that the butcher, with access to all those knives, will not suddenly become a homicidal maniac.

But some assumptions stop us expressing our best possible selves. Often this is where the most uncomfortable work happens, as it’s hard to jettison dearly held beliefs.

Beliefs that have served us well for many years.

‘What might you be assuming here?’

‘If I asked … the same question, what would they say?’

‘Explain to me how …’

‘What changes if we assume … isn’t true?’

Check the evidence

People use distorted thinking (we’ll get on to that in a future post) to justify comments that are supported weakly, if at all, by the facts.

 ‘Tony hates me’

How do you know he does?

‘Sarah is trying to take my job’

Can you prove that?

‘Terry is better suited to my post than I am’

What evidence do you have for that?

How do you know what you know? This is an area that when examined, often falls apart. Separating what we believe to be true from what we know to be true can help us recalibrate our basic attitudes.

‘What’s your evidence?’

‘Could you defend that statement in court?’

‘Who agrees with you?’

‘Can you give me an example of …?’

Question perspective

My children used to listen to tapes on long journeys. One of those stories – forgive me, author, your name is lost in the long distant past – had this lovely quote:

‘The truth is like a diamond – it looks different from every angle. But from whatever angle you look at it, it remains a diamond.’

A 1980s advert for the Guardian (a UK-based national newspaper) showed an incident from two perspectives. The young male protagonist came across as either a thug or a hero – depending on where the viewer was.

Confronting a perspective head on (‘you’re wrong, because…’) achieves little. To the coachee, your perspective is just as likely to be wrong. More so, in fact, as they’ve held their perspective for some time.

So simply check where they’re standing.

‘What would … say about it?’

‘Someone might say … – is that reasonable?’

‘What are the benefits to you of thinking this way?’

‘What alternative ways are there of thinking about this?’

What happens next?

People get stuck. That’s no surprise, but pointing out the implications of what someone has said can come as a shock.

Socrates majored on this. Page after page of Plato’s books consist of Socrates relentlessly pursuing ‘you said this, therefore that’. For example, from Meno:

SOCRATES: Were you not saying that the virtue of a man was to order a state, and the virtue of a woman was to order a house? 

MENO:        I did say so.

SOCRATES: And can either house or state or anything be well ordered without temperance and without justice? 

MENO:        Certainly not.

SOCRATES: Then they who order a state or a house temperately or justly order them with temperance and justice? 

MENO:        Certainly.

SOCRATES: Then both men and women, if they are to be good men and women, must have the same virtues of temperance and justice?

MENO:        True (and so on…)

Socrates pushes his philosophical duellist into a contradiction, forcing them to re-examine their starting point. From a coaching point of view (as opposed to trying to win an argument), provoking confrontation is not a recommended method! ‘Appropriate challenge’ is what we’re looking for here as an enlightened way to help close the gap between potential and performance.

‘Let’s assume … is true. What can you do about it?’

‘What would be the best outcome? What control do you have over that?’

‘How does … fit in with what you already know?’

‘If … really does think that, what are they likely to do next?’

Meta questions

Questions about the questions. Questions about why you’re asking questions. Questions about why the questions you’re asking are questioning the questions.

It sounds like it shouldn’t work, but it does. When these questions hit home, they can be the most profound. The coachee has no option but to be a fellow traveller in this journey, a co-creator of the enquiry.

The challenge for the coach is to have already established a strong rapport so that this sharing of responsibility doesn’t lead to a shut down in the coachee.

‘You’re the coach. Isn’t it your job to know the question?’

Rapport is a topic we’ll come back to. It’s a key part of coach training.

The point of a meta question is that it bounces the ball back into the coachee’s court. One of the most powerful questions I ever heard was “what’s the question you don’t want me to ask you?”

‘Why do you think I asked you that question?’

‘What would be a better question?’

‘What’s the response you’re expecting from me?’

‘What question comes next?’

K.I.S.S. – Keep it simple, Socrates

Any coach will tell you that as they went through their training, one of the hardest habits to kick was the multiple question. Asking a double or triple question (“would you like to go to dinner tonight or are you tired? Is that because you don’t like your job?”) does two things.

First, it allows the person to dodge whichever they think is the tricky question, and secondly, it confuses them. There’s an additional mental process needed to sift out the underlying question.

So keep your questions short, keep your questions simple and most importantly, keep listening to the answers. If you’re not sure what the next question should be, there are three tried and trusted responses that will rarely let you down.

‘Mmm…?’

‘Tell me more?’

‘And…?’

I’m going to leave you with an acronym. It wouldn’t be a coaching blog without one, it seems. Not specifically about Socratic questions, but just a reminder:

Keep your questions Socrates.

I’d love to hear your ‘zinger’ questions, or any examples of when a simple question has been the most effective one – comments welcomed below!

(and if you enjoy my writing, why not buy me a coffee at Ko-fi.com/chrisbrannick? It’s not expected or demanded, but I’d be really touched. I live on appreciation and coffee… in that order)

The Coaching Faculty at Guildhall School of Music and Drama run training courses for developing coaching skills in the following areas:

  • For Advisors, Mentors and Teachers
  • For Leaders and Managers
  • Peer Coaching in the Workplace (for all working professionals)
  • Executive Coaching and Mentoring Training Programme

All these courses are accredited at Foundation Level by the EMCC. In addition there are post-foundation courses in:

  • Practitioner level training (also EMCC accredited)
  • Continuing professional development

Coming June 2021, Leaders on Stage, specifically designed for orchestral principals. Topics covered include understanding the impact of different leadership styles, managing conversations with colleagues which result in effective action, leading difficult conversationsgiving and receiving feedback, introduction to a tool for regular reviews with colleagues and an introduction to neuroscience which backs up all the processes shared. 

More details available here.

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