Socratic Questioning and the nature of coaching (pt1)

One of my particular annoyances is the tendency for some people to reinvent the wheel, claim to have been the first to come up with something, and then write books and articles, run courses, accredit users, etc etc.  If someone else did it first, credit them, and then either develop it (significantly), or simply use it.  Looking at this in rather black and white terms, failing to do so is either a sign of the author’s ignorance or else plagiarism.
Coaching seems to be rife with examples of people repackaging well-established ideas and then claiming (c) copyright over them.  Indeed, you could argue that the very term, “coaching” is an example of this kind of ignorant reinvention.
At its most fundamental core, coaching is a process of asking questions.  It is usually suggested that, to be effective, we need to see the good side of our clients and aim for this to shine through them, and to do this we need to engage with them in ways that encourage this.  I could go on; open any coaching book and it will spell out these kinds of principles.  Very occasionally, the author of one of these books will explain that this ‘environment’, ‘holding space’, or whatever they brand it, was first described in 1951, by the humanistic psychologist, Carl Rogers, as “unconditional positive regard”.
If acknowledging Rogers is rare, then acknowledging Socrates is almost unheard of.  However, it was Socrates whose method of teaching refined the art of asking questions.  (Remember that one modality of coaching is educational (ie teaching).)  Socratic questioning, as it is called, wasn’t invented by Socrates!  He popularised it, by using it as a way of entertaining members of Athens society, 2500 years ago, staging ‘duologues’ where two voices took different sides in an argument – they could be played by the same person or by different people.  Some of these duologues were undoubtedly humorous and others were very serious.  One of his contemporaries,  Diogenes Laërtius wrote that this method was first invented by Protagoras as an alternative approach to the one that was popular at the time, performed by “Sophists” and which consisted essentially of a monologue (much like many stand-up comics and lecturers do today).  Again, it wasn’t Socrates who wrote up his ‘method’ either, that was done by Plato!
Socratic questions have six common forms;
  • Clarifying concepts
  • Probing assumptions
  • Probing rationale, reasons, and evidence
  • Questioning viewpoints and perspectives
  • Probing implications and consequences
  • Questioning the question and its purpose
If you have read any of the popular books on coaching skills, I am sure that you will have seen this list before – though I doubt if the author credited Plato!
While it was originally a form of performance art, Socratic Questioning has led to, at least, three different teaching mechanisms;
  • Fishbowl exercises
  • Triads
  • Simultaneous small groups (sometimes called “seminars”)
These teaching arrangements are often based either around a question posed by the teacher, or a text that the students have read previously.  You will recognise these, and you will (hopefully) now understand why we use them a lot in our coaching (and coaching supervision) training.

Why is all this so important?

Well, firstly, when training people for the future, we can’t possibly teach them all the knowledge that they need, because new technologies will emerge, new methods will replace old ones, and so on.  What we can teach is the ability to assess, understand, and put into context these new things.  Socratic questioning develops these abilities.
Secondly, we have known for a long time, that if someone is told something they will soon forget it, but if they discover it for themselves then they will remember it.  Socratic questioning enables them to make these discoveries.

How can a coach use their expertise to help a client?

Some coaches are taught NEVER to offer advice.  Some coaching supervisors struggle with how to pass on their knowledge.  The answer is quite simple.  Provided that you are working in the interest of your client, within your professional and personal competence, and with that attitude of “unconditional positive regard”, then you use Socratic Questioning to enable the other person to see things from a different perspective.

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