Socrates was probably one of the most original thinkers and educators in the ancient world. His style of education known as ‘ex duco’ was unique; it was a process of asking questions that drew out the answers from his students. His passion for asking awkward questions of people eventually led to his downfall, and he accepted ‘the hemlock cup’ rather than compromise his principles.

Socrates asked six types of questions, all challenging and thought provoking and all which can be used by us today to clarify our thoughts; rationalise our arguments and evaluate consequences. The overall purpose is to challenge accuracy and completeness of thinking in a way to allow individuals, or the group, to achieve their overall goals.

Try it at your next brainstorming session or get down to basics at the next business meeting.

Conceptual clarification questions

By asking these types of questions you can get people to think more about what exactly it is that they are arguing. It allows them to prove concepts behind their ideas and allows the person to really think deeply about their arguments

· What exactly does this mean?
· How are you relating this to what has already been said?
· What do we already know about this?
· Why do you say that?
· Can you give me an example?
· Can you rephrase that?

Probing assumptions

Unfortunately many of us argue from unsubstantiated assumptions. By asking probing questions we challenge these and make people think about what unquestioned belief underlies their arguments.

· You seem to be assuming …?
· What else could we assume?
· Please explain how.?
· Can you verify that assumption?
· What would happen if…?
· Would you then disagree with …?
· How did you choose those assumptions

Probing Rationale, Reasons and Evidence

When asked to explain their arguments people often reply citing poorly understood or unworkable reasons. So these questions force people to think more deeply about the reasons they rely on to support their arguments.

· How do you know this?
· Show me how….?
· Can you give me an example….?
· What do you think causes….?
· Are these reasons good enough?
· Would it stand up in court?
· Why?
· What evidence is there to support what you are saying?
· On what authority are you basing you argument

Questioning viewpoints and perspectives

Most people will argue from their own perspective, their own point of view. So these questions attack that perspective and show that there are other equally valid viewpoints.

· What alternative ways of looking at this are there?
· Why is … necessary?
· Who benefits from this?
· Why is it better than …?
· What is the difference between … and …?
· What are the strengths and weakness of …?
· What would … say about this?
· How could you look at this another way?

Probing Implications and Consequences

If we follow their arguments through there may be logical outcomes which can be anticipated. Do these make sense? Do they allow the goal to be achieved? Are they desirable?

· Then what would happen?
· What are the consequences of that assumption?
· How could this be used to …?
· Why is … important?
· How does … affect …?
· What are the implications for …?
· How does … fit in with our goals?
· Why is that outcome desirable?

Questions about Questions

Get reflective about the discussion, and when challenged by their questions turn it back to them.
· Why did you ask that question?
· What was the point of your question?
· Why do you think that I asked this question?
· What does that really mean?

Socrates’ idea on educating the youth of Greece was to make the student think more deeply about their ideas and beliefs. By challenging their assumptions and their reasoning he made them defend them and thereby promoted more rational thinking. These skills are still valid in business today. Test your own opinions by these questions before your next meeting; you will then know that you can defend them by realistic, thoughtful and supportive arguments.


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