Socratic Questioning: Definition & Use in Business

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  • 0:02 Socratic Questioning…
  • 1:11 Fundamentals of…
  • 2:19 Back to Our Business Example
  • 4:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Dr. Douglas Hawks

Douglas has two master's degrees (MPA & MBA) and is currently working on his PhD in Higher Education Administration.

One significant barrier to innovative business is making decisions or arriving at answers based on assumptions or without evidence. In this lesson, we'll discuss how Socratic questioning can counter this and other business barriers.

Socratic Questioning in Business

Let's pick out a common example in business - a very real scenario where Socratic questioning could help identify the real answer to some tough business issue. In our example, a new manager, Geoff, is hired and his responsibilities include managing about 30 people. Within 6 months of his hire, 20 people left for other jobs.

Before Geoff came, his group had high turnover - 66% per year. That means what normally occurs in a year only took 6 months under Geoff! Stacy, Geoff's boss, thinks it's time to talk to Geoff about this.

Stacy starts to think a little bit, first - about Geoff. What's wrong with him? He's a nice guy. Is he incompetent? Stacy wouldn't say so - she's seen Geoff prove himself technically and personally by settling miscommunications in ways she thought were productive. Honestly, Stacy thinks Geoff has started out better than the last few managers in his position.

While she's thinking about this, she decides to research on 'objective assessment of managers.' As she browses the results, she comes across a webpage that discusses Socratic questioning.

Fundamentals of Socratic Questioning

The first thing that Stacy reads is that Socratic questioning came from Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher. He was famous for his method of teaching, which wasn't just lecturing his students, but asking them questions and continuing to pry them with questions. His purpose was to constantly challenge assumptions and thought processes to make sure people were thinking completely and objectively. The six types, or reasons, of Socratic questions are:

  • Conceptual clarification: What does that mean…why do you think that?
  • Probing assumptions: What are you assuming…what happens if those assumptions change?
  • Probing evidence: Is your explanation the only explanation…is the evidence enough for proof?
  • Questioning perspectives: Why would you think that…who benefits from thinking that?
  • Probing consequences: What would that mean, if true…what happens if it changes?
  • Questions about the question: Why does it matter…what happens if you change the question?

Each of those types of questions becomes important depending on the situation, but two stick out to Stacy - (1) probing assumptions and (2) probing evidence.

Back to Our Business Example

After Stacy reads about Socratic questioning, she revisits the issue with Geoff. First, she wonders what assumptions she is making. She realizes that first, she's assuming that people might leave their job just because of their boss. The workplace includes a lot of different factors other than just the boss.

Second, she realizes she hasn't looked at the macroeconomic situation. She remembers one of the people that left Geoff's team had a child that went to the same school as her 12-year-old, so she makes a note to try and catch her when they pick up the kids tonight.

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