Socratic Questions

Socratic Questions

Socratic questions provide an excellent remedy to mechanical thinking, emotional thinking, and groupthink. These questions probe thinking, clarify definitions, and challenge assumptions. The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates used such questions to prompt his students to think more deeply and critically.

Socratic Questions

Forming Socratic Questions

Socrates Louvre

Socratic questions come in a variety of forms:

  • Clarification questions explore thinking, seeking greater precision.

    Could you explain that idea further? How would you define the term . . . ?

  • Assumption questions target unstated premises in a person's position.

    Are you assuming that . . . ? In what circumstances would that not apply?

  • Reasoning questions probe the logic and support of a given argument.

    What evidence supports this viewpoint? How do you infer that idea from what we've already established?

  • Perspective questions consider opposing points of view.

    What would the opposition say about that? What would you think if you were . . . ?

  • Implications questions explore the results of an argument or position.

    What would happen if everyone accepted this idea? How does . . . affect . . . ?

  • Recursive questions ask about a different question.

    What questions should we ask about that idea? Why do you think that question is important?

Using Socratic Questions

These sorts of questions, used judiciously, can help you break through your own mechanical thinking, manage your emotional thinking, and overcome groupthink. More than that, Socratic questions deepen your thinking. They help you wrestle with ideas rather than simply accepting them. They foster rigor.

Caveat: The word judiciously is key. If others think you are asking questions to make them look bad or to stir up dissent, you won't get very far. Clearly connect your questions to the stated goal of the group—to understand a situation and make the best decisions about it. If someone questions the motives behind your probing questions, you can reply, "I just want to make sure we aren't missing something vital" or "We need to consider all options before making our decision."

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