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What Is Socratic Questioning in Psychology?

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The Greek philosopher Socrates lived during 400 BCE in Athens. Rather than teach his students through lectures, Socrates engaged their minds through conversation, revolutionising education.

Known today as the Socratic method, this form of questioning is valuable for members of the psychological community. Some 2,500 years later, Socrates leaves an essential legacy to mental health professionals.

The legacy of Socratic questioning in psychology

The Socratic method involves a dialogue between teachers and students. Teachers do not merely lecture students – they are actively engaged in their learning process. Much is the same for how Socratic questioning impacts psychological thought – modelled after how Socrates conducted his class discussions, the method of questioning influences much of psychological study today, especially cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Mental health professionals use Socratic questioning to help clients challenge deeply held beliefs that influence identity. Asking open-ended questions helps to unpack and examine these values, potentially disregarding negative ones for self-improvement. When using the Socratic method as a guide, therapists allow the conversation to fill the time allotted. There is no lesson plan or pre-outlined agenda. Through engaging dialogue, they open clients’ minds, answer questions, and change impressions.

How the Socratic method looks in therapy

To successfully utilise Socratic dialogue throughout a session, therapists function as a discovery guide, posing questions to their clients that challenge assumptions and values. For CBT to meet the expectations of both client and therapist, the session must facilitate emotional and behavioural change. This change is primarily brought on by the effective use of the Socratic method – asking straightforward, open-ended questions that have a purpose, and are focused and neutral.

When therapists take up the mantle of discovery guide, they must pretend like they don’t have the answers. This is a crucial step because the clients must be the ones to discover the answer and learn for themselves. It may be tough for a mental health professional to profess ignorance and not coach a client to reach an inevitable conclusion. However, know with certainty clients benefit from reaching these answers on their own and by making these adjustments independently.

Using the Socratic method with clients

While applying the Socratic method in your therapy sessions, keep in mind that it works well adapted to a remote form of therapy. So no matter if you’re meeting with clients via telehealth, Socratic questioning is the perfect way to engage with them.

Before starting your session, remind the client of the session expectations and how the Socratic method works. For the therapy session to run well, the client will need to participate and engage in the questioning process thoughtfully. When utilizing this method with clients, come prepared with plenty of questions in advance of the session. While it’s best to allow the session to unfold naturally, organize the questions to assist the client best.

Use these points as a guideline for each session:

  • Help your client by giving them plenty of time to digest your questions.
  • Provide directed follow-up questions to your client’s responses.
  • If necessary, ask the client to elaborate on their answers.
  • Routinely summarize what the client has said.
  • If it seems your client is confused by a question, reword it for their benefit.

Types of Socratic questions

A therapist can use many types of questions with a client to probe some of their deepest held beliefs or even help challenge their line of reasoning. Some of the most helpful of these categories include:

  • Clarification questions. What do you mean by that? Could you give an example?
  • Viewpoint questions. How would another group of people respond to that question? How are _’s and _’s views alike? How are they different?
  • Assumption questions. Why would someone make that assumption? What could we assume instead?
  • Implication questions. What effect could that have? Could that really or probably happen?
  • Evidence questions. What would be an example? What other information do we need?

Use a variety of these question types when formulating your question approach for each session. It can be helpful to use a different system when trying to assist your client to understand their assumption, especially if you find that questions up to that point aren’t working out.

Socratic questioning and CBT

Without the wisdom of Socrates, much of CBT and the method of questioning currently utilized in therapy today wouldn’t exist. The legacy of Socratic questioning lives on in psychology, benefiting mental health professionals everywhere.

Ginger Abbot has written for The National Alliance for Mental Illness, HerCampus, Motherly and more. When she’s not freelancing, she works as chief editor for the learning publication Classrooms, where you can read more of her work.

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