The Power of the Right Question

Great solutions can be hard to find but having a questioning mindset can make this search much easier. Socratic questioning is one technique that can help with this process. Socratic questioning is a method used by leaders to explore business assumptions, evaluate complex problems, search out faulty thinking, analyze concepts and ultimately find the root of issues in complex business matters. It is based on the style of intellectual inquiry of Socrates and it entails a discussion between individuals that involves asking and answering questions to identify underlying assumptions and presenting facts to support a particular opinion or conclusion.

Socratic questioning is also a great development tool in that it helps leaders teach their people how to think. Through this process, a leader can learn more about how their team members think about organizational issues, what are their current problem-solving and decision-making abilities and are they effectively addressing and resolving the complex problems inherent in today’s business environment.

Leaders can start using this method simply by asking questions of their team rather than accepting their suggested solutions or providing them the answers to business problems. Often it is quicker and easier to accept the recommendations of your team but this can prove disastrous if business problems are not fully examined. In our current context of multi-tasking, volatile competitive environments and the expectations to drive with urgency, leaders often do not engage in the discipline of slowing down and thinking things through.

To be more like Socrates, consider the following:

  • Ask questions that highlight assumptions and dig deeper into the accuracy of the assumption. How do we know that for sure? What information are you basing your assumption? What do we not know for sure?
  • Ask questions that encourage alternative perspectives. Why is this the best solution? What other solutions have we already tried? What have others said about this issue? What would our stakeholders think about this option?
  • Ask questions to evaluate or further discuss implications. What is the worst that could happen if we don’t do anything? What are the unintended consequences if we move forward?
  • Ask questions that force the individual to consider the unknown. This can be challenging for some individuals that are more comfortable thinking about what is known and observable. However, help these individuals plan or anticipate the unexpected. Help them consider not only the possibilities but also the probabilities.
  • Challenge the status quo. Individuals tend to make decisions or create solutions that maintain the status quo, despite strong evidence that change is needed. Ask questions that promote a discussion of what is new and potentially better.  Encourage others to take risks to test out new options before rolling out big changes.

Ultimately, Socratic thinking teaches us to dig below the surface and find answers that were initially unknown but ultimately are of better quality. Some of the world’s best ideas came from a combination of intellectual freedom, curious exploration, and critical thought.  With a few powerful questions, where will your thinking take you?

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