Contrasting Socratic Questioning with Systemic Questioning

This is the third of three articles written in response to a question from a colleague about the role of systemic questioning in coaching.  Why three?  Personally, I have tended to use Socratic Questioning in much of my work.  It is particularly popular among the teaching community in further and higher education.  So, I felt it would be useful to answer their question, pose the same question of the Socratic approach, and to explore their differences.

In coaching, both systemic questioning and Socratic questioning serve as important tools for fostering insight, growth, and problem-solving. However, they differ fundamentally in their approaches and objectives. In these notes, I contrast these two methodologies, highlighting how they function distinctly within coaching contexts.

Systemic Questioning in Coaching

Systemic questioning originates from systemic therapy and family systems theory, focusing on the individual’s interactions within various systems such as family, work, and social environments. This method explores the patterns, roles, and dynamics that influence a person’s behavior and perceptions (Hawkins & Smith, 2013).

The primary goal of systemic questioning is to help the client understand and alter their relationships and interactions within these systems. It encourages clients to look beyond individual issues and consider broader relational contexts, which can perpetuate or resolve their challenges. For example, a coach using systemic questioning might ask, “How does your partner’s response influence your decision-making at work?” This type of questioning helps reveal interconnected influences that shape the client’s experiences and choices (Palmer & Whybrow, 2019).

Socratic Questioning in Coaching

In contrast, Socratic questioning, rooted in the philosophical tradition of Socrates, is a form of disciplined questioning that promotes critical thinking and illuminates ideas. This method is less about the systems surrounding the individual and more about probing the individual’s thoughts, beliefs, and assumptions (Palmer & Whybrow, 2019).

Socratic questioning aims to stimulate self-reflection and deeper understanding by challenging the client to examine and, if necessary, re-evaluate their beliefs. A typical question in this method might be, “What evidence supports your belief that your colleagues disapprove of your ideas?” Such questions encourage the client to consider the validity and sources of their assumptions, leading to greater clarity and perspective change (Neenan, 2008).

Comparison of Approaches

Focus and Scope: While systemic questioning considers the external influences and interactions affecting the client, Socratic questioning concentrates on the internal cognitive processes. Systemic questioning explores the ‘how’ of relational dynamics and their impact, whereas Socratic questioning delves into the ‘why’ behind thoughts and beliefs.

Objective and Outcome: The outcomes of systemic questioning are often insights into relational patterns and their influence on behaviors, aiming at transforming these relationships to improve the client’s well-being. In contrast, Socratic questioning seeks to develop rigorous thinking, self-awareness, and personal congruence by challenging and refining thought processes (Grant, 2014).

Application in Coaching: Systemic questioning is particularly useful in coaching contexts where interpersonal relationships and external systems play a significant role in the client’s issues, such as in executive or family business coaching. Socratic questioning is more aligned with contexts where decision-making, belief systems, and internal conflicts are central, such as in career or life coaching (Lancer et al., 2016).

Practical Implications in Coaching

Integrating the Techniques: Effective coaching can involve integrating both approaches, depending on the client’s situation and needs. For instance, a coach might use systemic questioning to understand a client’s work environment and then apply Socratic questioning to challenge the client’s beliefs about their capabilities within that environment (Law, Ireland, & Hussain, 2007).

Skill and Sensitivity: Both methods require the coach to be highly skilled in question formulation and sensitive to the client’s responses. The ability to switch seamlessly between questioning styles can enhance the coaching experience and outcomes.

Ethical Considerations: With both styles, coaches must maintain ethical boundaries and ensure questions are posed in a non-judgmental, supportive manner to foster a safe space for client exploration (Stober & Grant, 2006).


Systemic and Socratic questioning are both powerful in coaching but serve different purposes and are based on different theoretical foundations. The choice of which questioning style to employ should align with the client’s needs, the specific coaching objectives, and the context within which the coaching occurs.


Grant, A. M. (2014). The efficacy of executive coaching in times of organisational change. Journal of Change Management, 14(2), 258-280. DOI: 10.1080/14697017.2013.805159

Hawkins, P., & Smith, N. (2013). Coaching, mentoring and organizational consultancy: Supervision and development. 2nd Ed. Open University Press. ISBN: 9780300126093

Lancer, N., Clutterbuck, D., & Megginson, D. (2016). Techniques for coaching and mentoring (Second edition). Routledge. ISBN: 978-1-317-42956-2

Law, H., Ireland, S., & Hussain, Z. (2007). The psychology of coaching, mentoring and learning. John Wiley & Sons Ltd. ISBN: 978-0-470-06044-5.

Neenan, M. (2008). Using Socratic questioning in coaching. Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 26(1), 38-48. DOI: 10.1007/s10942-007-0076-z.

Palmer, S., & Whybrow, A. (2019). Handbook of coaching psychology. Routledge. ISBN: 978-1-317-63639-7.

Stober, D. R., & Grant, A. M. (Eds.). (2006). Evidence based coaching handbook: Putting best practices to work for your clients. Wiley. ISBN: 978-0-471-72086-7.


[Written and illustrated with the help of ChatGPT 4.]

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