Leveraging Questions to Increase
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
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
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
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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