Start by asking “Why?”
Lessons from Socratic Questioning, and how to apply it to your day-to-day
If any point in history is like a kid who doesn’t stop asking their dad questions to the point their dad either gets angry or tells the kid to ask their mom, it’d be the story of Socrates and the people of ancient Athens.
In the bustling Agra public zone, Socrates would be finding passers-by and bombarding them with his questions, utilizing them as instruments to probe people’s thought processes. He asked all kinds of people these probing questions: everyone from your average merchants to the most famous Athenian statesmen!
I want to cover Socrates and his questioning because it shows us an awesomely useful tool that we can employ for counseling friends, reinforcing or up-rooting our current opinions and perceptions, and for finding the source of other people’s beliefs.
Socratic Questioning 101
What differs between a kid asking a billion questions to mom and dad and Socrates questioning passers-by with a probe on their beliefs, is the intention and direction as to where the questions were going.
While the kid is exercising his or her curiosity in an endless cycle with no real direction except to have more answers in their head, Socrates asked his questions with the intention of making those he talked to dig through the logic of their own beliefs. He would purposely assume a position of ignorance while talking, and at the same time assume the person he’d be talking to have more knowledge and capability.
Socrates and his questioning method ended up being referred to as Socratic questioning. We can break down this Socratic questioning process into a loop of:
- Asking a broad question to start and assuming total ignorance
- Getting an answer
- Following up with another question trying to get to the bottom of where the logic behind the person’s new answer came from
- Getting a slightly more clear answer as the person is thinking through their own logic more and reinforcing/up-rooting their own beliefs in the process
- Analyzing their new answer, and continuing to question the logic behind the answer. (Especially if there’s holes or inconsistencies with the logic)
- Repeat the cycle from step 2 onwards!
This is the general process as I’ve interpreted of Socratic questioning. As mentally exhausting as this process may sound if you’re trying to ask about really broad questions like “What is Justice?” or “What is good or evil?”, I personally want to talk about when it can a use-case where it works well.
There’s another way to comfort your friends
At some point, everyone is going to find themselves in a position where they have to support someone emotionally. Your friend got dumped by the love of their life and the world is unfair now, your spouse lost their favorite job and it’s all because of that jerk of a boss they had; things happen and you’ve got to be there for the people you care for.
I’ve noticed by anecdote, that as the comforter you can successfully approach this task in two non-mutually exclusive ways:
a) Emotional comforting
When you emotionally comfort someone the priority is saying the right words to make the person feel emotionally better about themselves. It’s putting them in a more righteous situation if it’s a personal disagreement with someone or framing their situation in a more palatable context if it’s something bad that’s happened.
b) Intentional (Totally not Socratic) Questioning
On the flip side of things when you ask the person questions on their issues with this Socratic approach, you could help guide the person to a sense of understanding on their own accord. An acceptance or realization of a less emotionally clouded picture of where they are can go a long way when the person realizes it themselves.
I’ll say that this isn’t my own pet theory- it’s an actual method tried by therapists in engaging their patients with the exact intention of guiding people to their own healthy realizations. If you want to see this Socratic questioning approach employed in therapy first hand, check this out:
People don’t usually like to challenge their own perception
I’ve sold Socratic questioning a lot in this piece but there is, of course, the elephant in the room that needs to be approached. People do not usually take kindly to having their world views flipped upside down, it kind of goes against the evolutionary programming we’re born with. Ultimately it was the Socratic questioning which landed Socrates on trial which would eventually lead to him being mandated to commit suicide by drinking Hemlock!
Socratic questioning doesn’t care for preserving your world view and sense of security, it’s very much a pursuit of truth above anything else.
You can take that as you may but people will oftentimes have a negative reaction to too much probing on what they believe to be true- much like the angry dad snapping at their inquisitive kid to ask their mom or responding with the classic “because I said so!”
I think that you can be critical of the logic people use while avoiding coming off as personally attacking someone, and you can do so by questioning with intention and direction. By employing Socratic questioning in the right context and time to improve your relationships while using this questioning as a tool, and not having malicious intent such as trying to make the other person look foolish, you can accomplish this respectful middle ground.
Final Thoughts and Key Takeaways
I wanted to fixate on Socrates’ approach to questioning people because it serves as a really flexible tool you can use regardless of your philosophy is. It’s a way to challenge each other's thoughts and sharpen our minds, all well staying respectful and not burning bridges in the process.
Ultimately our logic and emotions are intertwined, being able to untangle our thoughts and the underlying foundations behind our perception of how the world works are key to sharpening our brains and learning more each day. In my ideal world, this critical thought would be how we’d remove the biases of yesterday and approach closer to an understanding of truth day-by-day.
Here’s the quick rundown of some of the key ideas I’ve covered:
- Socratic questioning is a systematic method of uncovering the logic and foundational assumptions people employ to build their current perception
- You can employ Socratic questioning in situations where you are comforting someone.
- Tread with caution and be intentional with your words, you run the risk of burning bridges with people if you question people with hostility or no regard for the emotional response they’ll naturally have to the questions’
I hope you find this article valuable, and I’d appreciate any feedback points from you as the reader. If you’re interested in my work as a student working in the synthetic biology space, feel free to follow me on twitter for my latest updates.