How to Lead with Socratic Questions

Posted 08.02.2023

During the ten years that I taught leadership coaching at Georgetown University, one of the biggest points all of us on the faculty wanted our students to learn was that coaching isn’t about offering answers or advice. It’s about asking the kinds of questions that help leaders come up with their own answers and insights.

As an executive leadership coach, I often see the same dynamic playing out with my clients. They got where they are because they’re smart and have answers. That’s a great thing until it’s no longer a great thing. It reaches the no longer a great thing point when it ceases to scale. There is simply too much to do and too many things to fix in large organizations for senior executives to provide all the answers. The task is to build organizational capacity so the broadest number of people can come up with answers that lead to continuous improvement.

That’s where Socratic questioning comes in. Named after the method that the Greek philosopher Socrates used to teach Plato and other students, Socratic questioning is a disciplined approach to questioning that helps people examine situations and unpack them in a way that helps them think through how to solve problems and improve processes.

Consider this post a starter kit for how to lead with Socratic questions.

First, there are some basic principles to keep in mind. When leading with Socratic questions, you:

  • Challenge assumptions
  • Probe for clarity
  • Stimulate critical thinking
  • Explore alternatives
  • Ask more than you tell
  • Practice generative and active listening
  • Promote a spirit of inquiry and learning

The quality of the questions you ask matters a lot. Your questions should be open-ended, non-accusatory, and stimulate observation and reflection. Here are some examples of questions that embody the first four Socratic principles:

Challenge assumptions

  • What underlying assumptions led us to this conclusion?
  • How we would view this if we challenged our assumptions?
  • What’s the evidence for our assumptions?

Probe for clarity

  • Could you provide a specific example that makes your point?
  • How do you define what you mean by that idea?
  • What does that really mean? Can you explain it in non-expert language?

Stimulate critical thinking

  • What are the root causes driving this issue?
  • How does this problem or opportunity connect to bigger picture patterns in our company? Our industry? Society?
  • What are the long-term implications of this decision?

Explore alternatives

  • What are alternative perspectives that could challenge the way we’re looking at this situation?
  • How would someone with a different perspective or experience view this situation?
  • What if we approached this situation from a completely different perspective?

Since, in most companies, learning is a means to an end rather than an end in itself, questions like the ones I just shared usually need to be preceded with questions that help establish the goals around the problem that’s being solved or the opportunity that’s being addressed. And then, after the problem analysis and option generation questions are addressed, followed by questions that help people narrow their options down to action steps.

Of course, there’s a lot more to Socratic questioning than can be covered in a 500-word blog post. What experiences and insights about Socratic questioning do you want to share? What questions do you have about how to practice or encourage Socratic questioning in your organization? Please share your thoughts and questions in a comment on LinkedIn or send me an email.

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