It is easy to fall into the trap of using Socratic Questions all of the time. The approach might have worked for Socrates, however, there are situations in today’s business environment when the technique is of little value or can be used maliciously. Socratic Questions is a powerful tool but isn’t a silver bullet to be used willy nilly (no vampires were harmed in writing this essay).

Winston Sucher, Enterprise Solution Architect, and Manager at PwC stated, “Socratic questions need to be used appropriately. Used inappropriately without some understanding the individual you’re engaging with can also lead to a feeling of arrogance or contempt to the Socratic question asker.”

There are several scenarios where using Socratic doesn’t make sense. Don’t use Socratic Questions:

  1. To lead or manipulate someone negatively. Christopher Hurney wrote, “often I think my attempt at Socratic questions are actually leading questions … and leading questions, IMO, risk coming off as a bit condescending.” Attempting to lead or manipulate the person you are asking questions to is questionable behavior. Used correctly, Socratic Questions/DIalog is a process of helping the learner to learn and develop their own ideas.  Contextually this might feel like manipulation, however, this form of guidance is the role of the coach and teachers.
  2. To belittle OR FRUSTRATE others. I can’t think of a reason for using a Socratic Dialog to make someone think less of themselves.  That said, I have seen coaches and teachers that use Socratic-like questioning to inflate their own self-worth and self-confidence at the expense of those they are teaching. The problem is not the technique, but the person wielding the technique. 
  3. To avoid answering a question asked multiple times. Several years ago I took a class on sales training.  One of the techniques was when confronted by a question you did not understand or you needed clarification in order to answer was to ask a question about the question (a form of Socratic Questioning).  When you ask a question about the question most people will reframe their question. If however, the learner (or person you are selling to) repeats the same question, we were instructed to answer the question as directly as possible. Trying to use Socratic Questions to avoid or change a question being asked twice will alienate the person asking the question. 

Where appropriate, Socratic Questions are useful. Susan Parente, professor, coach, and Not A Scrumdamentalist columnist on the SPaMCAST, stated, “One of my favorite and most challenging undergraduate professors in engineering used the Socratic method. Although I found it a little frustrating when I was his student, I still appreciated how his approach made us as students think through problems. As I am sure you know, this greatly helped me when dealing with problems in my profession and has helped me to be a lifelong learner, always asking questions of myself, my colleagues, and those that I lead and teach.” Piling on, just a bit, Kim Pries, the Software Sensei, author, and educator added, “I found out early on in my educational career that telling simply didn’t work with teenagers. I will almost always throw the issue back in the student’s court with an apt question. In the end, Socratic Questions can be used incorrectly.  The context in which Socratic questions are used matters for learning, not manipulation. Socratic Questions work best as a tool to help learners synthesize thoughts and ideas into something that is theirs; something they can own rather than rent.