The Socratic Method uses questions to guide your student on a journey of discovery leading toward greater understanding or increased performance.
Although facilitation is about moving people to where they want to go, the simple truth is that nobody moves anywhere unless they move themselves. The Socratic Method is a way to help people see when they need to move, and where they need to move to. It produces better learning and better solutions because it leads people to explore, challenge their thinking, and discover answers for themselves. Self-discovery facilitates action because individuals uncover for themselves what needs to be done and why.
How does it work?
There are two elements essential to using the Socratic Method – questions, and knowing where you’re going.
1) Not all questions are created equal. There are open, closed, and guiding questions, but it’s important to understand that every question is a search for one of three things:
- An expression of a subjective preference.
- An objective fact.
- The best possible alternative or solution.
2) You must know where you’re going in order to know what to ask for. As a facilitator you are trying to help someone to get where they want to go. Start there. That’s your first question. Ask them where they want to go and why they want to get there. What’s their desired outcome or end result? You’ll want to keep their answer out in front of you so it can guide you like a beacon as you continue to ask and receive questions.
Tapping the Power of Questions
Once you ask a question – be quiet. Wait. Even if there’s a very loooooooooong pause. Allow them time to think and reflect, to form their answer. Don’t answer your own question! You don’t want to send the message that your questions are rhetorical. If someone is unable to answer your question, back up and break your question into smaller questions. Or you might ask them what their question is – what’s got them stuck.
When you’re asked a question, think, What’s needed to answer that question? Then ask yourself, “Which of those things is this person missing”? If it’s not obvious, ask. If you know what’s needed, then ask yourself, “What question will help move them there?”
Then you’re ready to respond to the initial question — with a question that will help them move forward, towards where they want to go. Note that moving forward may mean stepping sideways, or even backwards, as you ask questions to help them find what they need to answer their earlier questions. Because you don’t know before you start what they’ll need, you can’t know in advance what path you and they will take as you guide them to where they want to go.
If you’re working with a group, be sure not to repeat what someone says, or you’ll unwittingly train them not to listen to one another. Instead, ask another participant to repeat what was said if clarity is needed.
If you find your participants speaking only to you, take some time and help them understand the importance of speaking to everyone when they are asking and answering questions. Involving everyone and expanding the discussion helps the group to learn as a team, which dramatically increases their discoveries.
If you’re used to preparing a set of charts and presenting them, you may find using the Socratic Method challenging, and perhaps a bit “messy.” However, with practice, you’ll find the approach both fun and rewarding. After all, when do you learn best? When someone tells you the answer, or when they help you figure it out for yourself?
About the Author. This article was submitted by Norman Patnode, Professor of Program Management & Leadership at the Defense Acquisition University, where he provides training in strategic leadership, critical thinking, teamwork and teambuilding, the application of Myers-Briggs (MBTI), program risk management, coaching and conflict management. He also teaches a number of the basic program management tools.
Take an opportunity to experiment with the Socratic Method with your groups or simply in conversation with individuals you encounter that may be looking for guidance. Please click on the Add Your Comments link above and share your thoughts, stories, and experiences around this topic. I’d love to hear from you!