An awareness of identity-related issuesCommunication meaningfully with othersEncourages sharing and expressing using adequate methodsSkill to support learners in engaging in active listening

The Socratic Method

The Socratic Method started with this quote from the iconic Greek thinker, Socrates: "Let us examine the question together, my friend, and if you can contradict anything I say, do so and I will be persuaded." This ancient form of give-and-take discourse is reportedly founded on Socrates’ belief that lecture was not an effective way to teach all of the students. The Socratic Method requires cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals, asking and answering questions that stimulate critical thinking, and draw out underlying presumptions. This article aims to describe the Socratic Method and how to apply it in a training, including the actual questions that can be used when practicing the Socratic Method.

Why did I choose this tool?

I learned this method when I was being trained as a life coach, and yet when I started to apply it in a training setting, I was able to see impressive results and I realized that there is a strong link between asking good questions and the whole philosophy of “non-formal education”. I realized that supporting participants to find their own answers, and facilitating the sharing of knowledge and experience between participants is a part and parcel of non-formal education and can only be accomplished by asking the right questions.

How does this apply to being a trainer?

Asking the right questions is one of the most important roles that any trainer has, particularly when working in the realm of non-formal education. It is the questions that enable participants to search for and share the knowledge and insights that they already have (or that they are gaining throughout the training process). Some trainers are great at planning and implementing activities, and even giving an input with interesting and relevant information, and yet they struggle with debriefing an exercise, facilitating a reflection group or evaluation. Not being skilled in these aspects (which is basically comprised of asking good questions, listening to the answers, then asking more good questions) can greatly limit the learning outcome that participants will get from the training and can even cause them to miss the point of an exercise or even of the training. Therefore, it is worthwhile to take the time to develop the skill of asking the right questions as a trainer, as it can add tremendous value to the training process.

Main content:

What is the Socratic method?

“I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” Albert Einstein

The Socratic Method is a way of educating yourself by the original meaning of the word “educate.” The Latin meaning of educate is “to draw out.”

Socrates found the best way to cultivate wisdom in his students. That was not by telling them things – which is called didactic instruction – but to make them say things to him, which is now called Socratic instruction.

Didactic instruction is when the lecturer imposes information on students. So, the didactic method basically means the student sits and consumes information, and is expected to learn by that process.

Socrates strongly believed that the didactic process did not cultivate any real wisdom. It, at best, encouraged students to be good regurgitators of information. In a didactic situation, students often memorize information and repeat “facts”, without fully comprehending what they were repeating.

Since Socrates was a teacher of great depth and of quite subtle philosophy, he needed a way to teach his students in a much more thorough, impactful way. What he discovered was that the Socratic Method – which is basically to ask his students good leading questions – would draw out of them powerful new realizations through this questioning process.

Basically, in the Socratic Method, it is the students that are coming up with that information. So good questions, good speaking assignments if you will, allow students to start speaking and sharing, and start coming out with surprising new realizations.

This is all based on the principle that the truth is inside of you, and everything you need to know you already know, you just might need help navigating and accessing that knowledge.

How to practice the Socratic Method?

The Socratic Method is mainly about asking questions, but not just any questions. It is about asking the right questions: questions that are thought provoking, that go further into the topic, and that inspire a higher level of thinking and sharing in order to reach a learning outcome that wouldn’t have been possible with traditional teaching/training methods.

The Socratic method is often taught to life coaches, since their primary role is not to teach coaches but to support them in discovering the wisdom that is already inside themselves. As a trainer, it is likely that you have already used the Socratic method in some way, even if you weren’t fully aware of it. And it is actually through the Socratic method that you have further developed your skills and knowledge as a trainer, because when participants ask questions and you have to think about and give a thoughtful answer, you are in fact benefitting from this process because it gives you the opportunity to dig deeper, to form and share your ideas in the best way possible.

Thinking about it as “the Socratic Method” is just a way of structuring and understanding the existing process of asking questions and bringing out information. There are a million different questions you can ask in any given situation, but here are some ideas of questions that serve different purposes in the training process. If you practice the Socratic method at certain parts or throughout the whole training, it can be useful to explain this to the participants so that they don’t feel that your probing questions are like an interrogation and they don’t feel intimidated by them. Some cultures are more accustomed to asking and being asked questions then others, so it is important to take this into consideration as well. Body language and tone of voice come into play as well. If we think about the first question in this section, “why are you saying that”, it can come across either as an invitation to share more or an accusation, depending on the way it is asked and the way it is perceived.

I have highlighted the ones that I have found most useful in trainings, and briefly explain why.

Conceptual clarification questions

Why would you say that?

What exactly does this mean?

How does this relate to what we have been talking about?

What is the nature of…?

Can you give me an example?

This is most useful for getting a clearer picture of what someone is saying and prevents misunderstandings.

Probing assumptions

What else could we assume?

What else could this mean?

This one opens a wider range of possibilities that may not have been considered, and opens the door to empathy and the understanding that the same thing can mean different things to different people.

You seem to be assuming….?

How did you choose those assumptions?

Please explain why/how….?

How can you verify or disprove that assumption?

What would happen if….?

Do you agree or disagree with….?

I mostly use this one when implementing the agree/disagree method 😊.

Probing rationale, reasons and evidence

Why is that happening?

How do you know this?

Show me….?

Can you give me an example of that?

Helps people draw from their actual knowledge and experience rather than just discussing concepts.

What do you think causes…?

What is the nature of this?

Are these reasons good enough?

How can I be sure of what you are saying?

What evidence is there to support what you are saying?

Questioning viewpoints and perspectives

What alternative ways of looking at this are there?

Helps to broaden the scope of possibilities and think outside the box, can be useful particularly when brainstorming.

Who benefits from this?

What is the difference between….and…..?

Useful when defining terms, for example “what is the difference between a manager and a leader?”

Why is it better than….?

What are the strengths and weaknesses of….?

How are…..and…..similar?

Can be useful in training related to intercultural understanding/interreligious dialogue.

How could you look at this another way?

Probe implications and consequences

Then what would happen?

What are the consequences of that assumption?

What are the implications of….?

How does this fit with what we learned before?

Sometimes I will intentionally do back to back sessions without debriefing, and then use these or similar questions to piece all the learning together.

What is the best….? Why?

Why is…..important?

Questions about the question

What was the point of asking that question?

Why do you think I asked this question?

Why do you think we did this exercise?

Usually they (or at least one person in the group) will come up with the learning outcome on their own and then it can be built on further.

What does that mean?

As you may have noticed, all of the above questions are open-ended questions. Open-ended questions are questions that allow someone to give a free-form answer.

Closed-ended questions can be answered with “Yes” or “No,” or they have a limited set of possible answers.

How to Ask Open-Ended Questions

Closed Open
Are you satisfied? How satisfied or dissatisfied are you with this process?
Did it meet your expectations? What were your expectations? How do you feel about the final outcome and why?
Did you find it? Before a task:

  • Please tell me when you’ve found the item.
  • Explain how you would find that.

After a task:

  • Where did you find the answer?
  • Where was the item?
  • What did you find?
Do you think you would use this? How could this fit into your work?

How might this change the way you do that today?

Does that work for you? What do you think about that?
Have you done this before? What kinds of questions or difficulties have you had when doing this in the past?

What happened when you did this before?

Please describe your level of experience with …

Is this easy to use? What’s most confusing or annoying about …?

What worked well for you?

Did you know …? How do you know?
Do you normally …? How do you normally…?
Did you see that? What just happened?

What was that?

Do you like this? What would you most want to change about …?

Which things did you like the best about …?

Did you expect this kind of information to be in there? Before a task:

  • What do you expect to see when you … ?

After a task:

  • Which (other) kinds of information would likely be in there?
  • What were you expecting?

Why Asking Open-Ended Questions Is Important

The most important benefit of open-ended questions is that they allow you to find more than you anticipate: people may share motivations that you didn’t expect and mention behaviors and concerns that you knew nothing about. When you ask people to explain things to you, they often reveal surprising mental models, problem-solving strategies, hopes, fears, and much more.

Closed-ended questions stop the conversation and eliminate surprises: What you expect is what you get. (Choose your favorite ice cream: vanilla, strawberry, or chocolate.) When you ask closed-ended questions, you may accidentally limit someone’s answers to only the things you believe to be true. Worse, closed-ended questions can bias people into giving a certain response. Answers that you suggest can reveal what you are looking for, so people may be directly or indirectly influenced by the questions.

Although there is a time and place for both open-ended questions and closed-ended questions in a training, the Socratic method necessarily uses open-ended questions because the goal is to draw out more from the participants and it is the open-ended questions that can accomplish this.

Close ended questions can be very useful when you are trying to get to a conclusion or close a process. When you are nearing the end of the session, it may be better to use a close-ended question such as “do you feel that this sufficiently summarizes what we discussed” rather than the open-ended “what other ways are there of describing this” question which can trigger a whole other line of thought that you may not have the time to continue. When deciding whether to use open or closed questions just ask yourself:

Is my goal to get participants to open up and share more?

Or is it to smoothly wrap up the discussion and reach some solid conclusions?

If it’s the first, use open-ended questions and when appropriate (for example when you are debriefing an exercise) you can include the Socratic method. If it is the second, better stick to close-ended questions.

Reflection questions:

What did you learn/realize from this article?

How will you apply it in the future?

What could be the potential benefits of doing so?


How to apply it in everyday life:

Observe yourself and notice how often you are sharing facts and concrete information, versus how often you are asking questions with the intention of expanding your knowledge and awareness on any topic. If you find that that you tend more to the first part, try to balance it by incorporating more questions into your everyday life. You may be surprised at what learning and growing opportunities are available to you that you hadn’t previously realized because you were focused on what you already knew.

Leilani van Rheenen

has been active in youth work, training and coaching since 2008. Her specialty is emotional intelligence, emotional fitness, since it is the primary ingredient in competences such as inter-cultural competence, learning to learn, cooperating successfully in teams, etc. Leilani’s contribution will combine the information and methods she has created with the vast array of tried and tested materials available. Leilani has developed herself as a trainer from the Salto training for trainers, but also from renowned coaches and authors, and adapted methods learned from these sources to meet the needs of youth workers.

Click here to read more about Leilani van Rheenen

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Murray, J. (n.d.). Teaching Strategies About The Socratic Method. TeachHUB. Retrieved February 13, 2019Farrell, S. (n.d.). Open-Ended Vs. Closed-Ended Questions In User Research. Nielsen Norman Group. Retrieved February 13, 2019Gunderman, R. (n.d.). What The Trial Of Socrates Teaches About The Difference Between Winning And Excellence. The Conversation. Retrieved March 11, 2019

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