Coach of the ducks?

A short time ago I participated in a Meet-Up featuring Craig Larman.  As with most Meet-Ups, this session was engaging and thought-provoking. One of the takeaways was that when you ask someone to solve a problem or change how they are working, they need to own not rent the solution. When you give someone the answer they can’t or won’t own the solution. As soon as your influence is not focused on them, they will revert. The role of a coach often centers on diagnosing problems and helping people come to an understanding of how their behavior or feelings are affecting their team and organization. Rarely is an issue so obvious that observing a specific behavior and then sharing observations generates a real organizational or self-awareness solution. Questions are one of the most potent tools coaches have to help someone identify an issue and then find their own answer. The term ‘questions’ represent a mega category (similar to the term automobile).  Because the category is so large there are many ways to use questions to help solve problems. Socratic questions are an approach to using questions. Socratic questions when used is a formal structured approach to questioning that ALL coaches need to understand because it gets the person answering the question to own the solution.

Socratic questioning is an approach to teaching developed to Socrates (philosopher, mathematician, and teacher – 470 BC to 399 BC) in which the teacher takes an ignorant position so that student takes the higher, more knowledgeable position in the search for an answer. The approach could be ultra summarized as: ask questions, don’t give answers. The teacher needs to ask questions that lead a student to discover a solution.  As a coach, the answer needs to actionable or influenceable by their actions. Answers that can’t be acted upon are not very different from complaints. Complaints only reinforce that the person or team doesn’t have control over their circumstances, and it makes it appear like attitude is out of control.  

The power of Socratic questioning comes from a systematic and disciplined approach. The questioner needs to understand where the team or person they are working with are today in terms of knowledge and self-knowledge. That knowledge provides the questioner with a path (translate a path to a set of systematic and disciplined questions) to help the person reacting and answering the questions with a path to synthesizing information rather than relying on basic knowledge and principles. Socratic questioning focuses on fundamental concepts, principles, theories, issues or problems. We will discuss RW Paul’s six types of Socratic questions later in this theme. Socratic questioning is an approach for generating an objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment (critical thinking). Evoking our re-read of Thinking Fast and Slow, this type of questioning pushes those involved past System 1 thinking into the more deliberative System 2 thinking.   

Questions are a critical tool that every coach, mentor or leader uses to help shape and improve the performance of those they interact with — I don’t think this statement should surprise anyone.  That said, pushing past the concept of just asking questions, Socratic questioning is a formal and disciplined approach to getting the person answering the questions to synthesize and answer based on knowledge and logic.


Planned Entries

Types of Socratic Questions

Using Socratic Questions