The Socratic Method: An Ancient Answer to a Modern Day Dilemma

Aug 28, 2020

Teams produce much of today’s work in organizations, yet there is a shortage of proven modern day methods to train leaders how to effectively coach their teams. However, if we look to ancient history we find an alternate method of teaching that was first introduced in the second half of the 5th century BC, and a millennia later can be applied to team coaching. The method is known as the Socratic method and is named for its creator, Socrates, the famous Greek philosopher from Athens.

The Socratic method is a form of constructive dialogue within a group, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presumptions.

Asking questions is a uniquely powerful tool for unlocking value in an organization that often goes unrecognized. Many people have not been taught how beneficial good questions can be, nor how to formulate them.

Good questions unlock learning and the exchange of ideas, fuel innovation and performance improvement, foster interpersonal bonds among team members, and reduce business risk by uncovering unforeseen gaps and danger. Not to mention, asking questions also inherently improves a person’s empathy and emotional intelligence. .

While the Socratic method is a legitimate methodology, it is not meant to be used continuously. There are moments when employees want and need direction. The Socratic method works best in team or project situations rather than routine task assignments.

The crucial point to asking powerful questions and having a team that embraces inquiry is to see questions as a quest for the right answers verses an interrogation. If it’s a quest to get things right, rather than be right, everyone has a role to play and different insight to bring to the table. Conversely, if it feels like an interrogation, morale will drop and defensive attitudes will stifle the team’s ability to get mattes right.

With this in mind, core team coaching competencies are to observe and respond to your team as a collective group and individual members. This means listening to your team in new ways and tuning in on a new frequency.

For this reason try some of these Socratic questions with your team at your next team meeting:

  • ClarificationCan you say more about that?

  • Challenging Assumptions – On a scale of 1 – 10 … ?

  • Evidence and Reasoning – What evidence is there that this is true?

  • Alternative Viewpoints – What is a viable alternative?

  • Implications and Consequences – If we say “yes” to this, what are we saying “no” to?

  • Challenging the QuestionWhat are we not asking ourselves?

Asking the right questions, at the right time, and in the right way is not an easy task; it takes practice. Leaders who inquire demonstrate a willingness to learn, a desire to serve, and a humility that can be an inspiration for the entire organization.

Good questions help people devise their own solutions and inspires accountability because people support what they help create. Yesterday’s leaders focused on control, sought to minimize risk, and pushed to be the initiator of action. The result is a team that achieves less, is overly dependent upon the leader, and asks few questions.

In contrast, the leader who coaches with questions sees their team as a collective group made up of individual members with individual needs.

Ultimately, asking rather than telling and questioning rather than interrogating, are all part of effective team coaching and keys to leadership excellence and success in the twenty-first century.