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The Socratic Method
Average reader rating: 0  
by Maj. Norman H. Patnode, USAF 22 the future of Philosophy

Leveraging Questions to Increase Performance

Increasing performance means getting more of what you want, which of course assumes you indeed know what you want. If you can’t put your vision for your organization into a story that excites and energizes your staff, then I recommend you explore Noel Tiche’s concept of “The Teachable Point of View” in his book The Leadership Engine.

However, once you’ve got a story that captures the essence and energy of your vision, using the Socratic Method can help you quickly turn “your” story into “our” story and send the energy cascading through your organization. The Socratic Method is also a powerful way to help your staff discover how to turn that story into reality.

Defining the Socratic Method

The Socratic Method is about moving people along - in a direction they want to go. It’s not coercion, or manipulation - it’s a means to help people see the world around them, and how they think about it, more clearly.

The “moving” is done by guiding and, when necessary, nudging people to examine those things they take for granted such as their assumptions, beliefs, experiences, and paradigms. The Socratic Method uses questions to challenge these things, to check their accuracy and their completeness. Through these questions the Socratic Method guides people on a journey of discovery, and moves them toward greater understanding and increased performance.

Although leadership is about moving people, 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. These discoveries make it easier for people to take action because they’ve figured out for themselves what needs to be done, and why.

Putting the Socratic Method into Action

There are two elements essential to using the Socratic Method: 1) questions, and 2) knowing where we’re going. We’ll explore each in more detail.

The Most Important Part - Staying Focused on Where You’re Going
It’s not enough to just ask questions. You must ask questions that move people toward a desired goal or end state. This is why the vision story is so important - it captures and communicates the desired outcome. Use your vision story to help you, and everyone in your organization, stay focused on where all of you are going.

When you’re working one-on-one with individuals, think of yourself as a facilitator, where your role is to convey that person to where he or she wants to go. If you’re not sure where that is, ask. What’s the desired outcome/end result? Then stay focused on helping the person to move there.

The Hardest Part: Figuring Out What Question to Ask (Next)

Once it’s been decided where you and your organization are going and why, the next question is usually, how do we get there?

If this question draws nothing but blank stares, try flipping it around - tell me why we can’t do this. This will produce a list of obstacles - a treasure trove of questioning opportunities.

a) Why is this an obstacle?

b) Can we break it down into a set of smaller obstacles?

c) What condition do we need to create to overcome this obstacle?

d) What actions can we take to create this condition?

e) Which do we need to do first?

Once you ask a question, be quiet. Wait. Even if there’s a very loooooooooong pause. Allow the person time to think and reflect, to form an 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 the person what their question is - what’s got that person stuck?

Your questions will likely elicit both statements and questions. Both contain valuable information, which you can use to help you determine the “needed next step.” Knowing where the group (or individual) needs to go next, and how big a step that group (individual) is capable of taking will help you form the question that will move them forward.

To help you figure out the “next step,” evaluate where they are on Bloom’s Hierarchy of Learning (Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, Evaluation). Are they asking basic “comprehension” questions about the facts, or are their questions about synthesizing the facts into some new application? If their questions are asking for facts and data, then responding with questions asking them to evaluate the implied concepts will probably move them backward, not forward. Use their questions to guide you in determining the level of your “response questions.”

It’s also helpful to understand the layers of complexity used to create information. In its simplest form, information is composed of concrete data and facts - things you can see and touch. With a firm grasp of the concrete things around us, we can then describe concepts such as trust, initiative, and commander’s intent. And finally, when we grasp a concept and are comfortable with it, we can use those concepts to describe big universal abstractions such as “visionary organization” or “democratic republic.”

Start with what you’ve just been given - the statement or question. What’s the level of complexity? Do you need to take that group (individual) up or down a level? Dropping down will allow you to help them clarify and build a strong foundation for moving back up. Stepping up an additional level allows you to challenge them mentally, to stretch their thinking. Be conscious of your choice and stay focused on where you’re going.

As you’re looking at the goal - where you want to go - ask yourself what’s needed to take the next step forward. If you’re working with a statement, ask what’s missing. Or if you were given a question, ask what’s needed to answer that question. What you’re doing is can’t know in advance what path you and they will take as you guide them to where they want to go.

This can seem quite “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?

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