What Is Socratic Questioning
Socratic questioning is a dialog structured by a series of questions intended to draw out answers. First establish a thesis of what your stakeholder thinks their need is (usually expressed as a solution). Then engage in a dialog structured as a series of questions in an attempt to refute or disprove the thesis and get to the actual need.
Socratic questioning is named after the Greek philosopher and teacher, Socrates (ca. 470 – 399 B.C.) who taught his students through the use of questions to involve them in a thoughtful dialog. Socrates’ questions allowed his students to examine ideas logically in order to determine the validity of those ideas. This is a great way to explore ideas in depth which also drives the “student” to deeply consider, evaluate, and analyze their ideas.
Socratic questioning incorporates six types of questions which you’ll use to varying degrees during your conversations. Those six types of questions including some examples are:
|Probe reasons and evidence||
|Viewpoints and perspectives||
|Implications and consequences||
|Questions about the Question||
Want even more sample questions?
The questions above are great, but you can never have enough questions to choose from in order to get to the information you need.
One of our affiliate partners, Bridging the Gap, has compiled a set of questions you can use to guide your conversations with customers, users, and stakeholders.
When you download the Requirements Discovery Checklist Pack today, you’ll get over 700 questions categorized and cross-referenced so you can prepare for your next conversations with a sense of ease and confidence.
Complete with 18 checklists covering core business process areas and software features, the Requirements Discovery Checklist Pack is designed to help you think through the important questions you need to ask so you don’t overlook critical requirements (or feel unprepared for your upcoming discussions with customers, users, and stakeholders).
When to Use Socratic Questioning
Use socratic questioning to determine the real need behind a request for a project or a change to a product.
You can also use Socratic questioning to gain deeper understanding of assumptions that your team or stakeholders have or to help your team solve a problem.
Why Use Socratic Questioning
When teachers use this approach to help their students learn, they feign ignorance to help their students develop knowledge about the topic. When you use this approach to understand your stakeholder’s needs, the disciplined line of thinking helps you deepen your understanding of that need. At the same time, your stakeholder also gains a deeper understanding of their true need and as a result won’t be so hung up on their originally conceived solution.
This approache models the scientific practice of inquiry, so it reinforces the idea that product development is an exercise in learning through testing hypotheses.
How to Use Socratic Questioning
At the core, Socratic questioning involves starting a conversation with your stakeholder at a level they are comfortable talking. Ask a question, listen to their response, and use that response to prompt your next question.
To give you a head start, here is a line of questioning inspired by Brennan Dunn who uses them to understand the true needs of his web development clients. I’ve revised his line of questioning to get at the real need for internal products.
What is the project?
Listen to your stakeholder/customer/user about what they think they need. This is very similar to what many product people do currently and usually causes the stakeholder to describe the solution they want.
When did you realize you needed to do this project?
This helps you determine the event that sparked the change. It could be a series of events, or there could be that one straw that broke the camel’s back. This question helps you get to any time constraints and may also indicate why the project is important.
What problem does this project solve?
This is the blunt question to get at the need the project is intended to satisfy. Your stakeholder probably has a solution in mind, so getting them to walk back to the underlying need helps you build a working definition of success that provides options for how you can proceed.
What is the impact to your organization of that problem?
This gets at whether the need is worth satisfying. If the unsatisfied need is a mere annoyance, you may find that any solution would cost more than the benefit you experience. If on the other hand the need is a big deal, and you can solve it with a very simple change to a process, it’d be silly not to make the change.
How much does that problem cost your organization?
Quantify the benefit of satisfying the need as a followup to the previous question. This is especially helpful for those people who prefer quantitative measures.
How should tomorrow look after we’ve solved this problem?
What do things look like if the need is successfully satisfied. It provides an opportunity to express the desired outcome in more concrete terms than “the problem is solved”.
What are the next steps?
Let the stakeholder know that you heard them, that you are focused on satisfying their need (although chances are you won’t deliver the exact solution they originally approached you with) and give them an idea about next steps.
Caveats and Considerations
While Socratic questioning seems simple, it can be quite rigorous. You need to have a goal in mind, listen carefully to the person you are talking to, and use the response to their questions to guide your next question and ultimately to gain a shared understanding of their desired outcome.
Start the discussion with a list of questions (such as the set of questions listed above) that you can use to structure the discussion, but be willing to explore an idea that comes up if it seems relevant.
Make sure that you ask clear, specific questions.
Allow time for the person you are talking with to answer. You may have periods of uncomfortable silence. That is ok. The person you are talking to may need to take some time to silently formulate their answer.
Follow up on responses and encourage elaboration where you feel more information is necessary.
Periodically summarize the conversation, either by sketching on a white board or stating “we agree that…” in order to make sure that everyone in the conversation has a shared understanding.
The 2-Word Trick That Makes Small Talk Interesting
What does small talk have to do with Socratic Questioning? Dave Schools describes an approach he’s found to help with keeping small talk going – prefacing questions with “I’m curious…” Starting a question with that phrase helps to “set the other person up for success. You’re not being interrogative, as there’s no right or wrong answer. There’s no judgment, no ulterior motive. You simply want to learn.” The next time you have to dig in deeper with a stakeholder, you may want to try it out.
I’m curious to hear how it turns out…
Stop asking “What problem are we trying to solve?”
Ok, I’ll admit I’m guilty of asking “what problem are we trying to solve” more than a few times. And I can see where it can get annoying, so I read this article from Ben Cruthers with interest. The discussion about The Anatomy of Problem may be interesting, but what I found really helpful is the 16 additional questions at the end of the post.
Asking Better Questions
John Cutler describes a board design he uses to elicit questions. He uses this with customers/prospects to tease out questions to answer with analytics and quantitative data. But it works well for questions to guide qualitative research as well.
Mastering Business Analysis Podcast Episode 180
InfoQ Engineering Culture Podcast
How to Find the Real Need with Socratic Questioning – presentation
The Six Types of Socratic Questions from the University of Michigan
Talking to Humans by Giff Constable