Asking better questions / the Socratic method

Questions open a pathway in your brain.  When you are asked a question, your brain seeks to answer it.  It’s like an itch that needs to be scratched.  When something is left undone, your brain wants to close the loop.

Personal development guru Tony Robbins has a saying that the quality of your life is determined by the quality of your questions.

However, asking better questions is certainly not a new concept.

In the 1700s Voltaire said, “Judge a man by his questions, rather than by his answers.”  (Well change that to gender neutral and say judge a person by his questions…”

In fact, over 2000 years ago, Socrates laid the foundation for western systems of logic and philosophy with the Socratic method of questioning.  

Socrates said ultimate wisdom comes from knowing oneself.

He then says the more a person knows, the greater his or her ability to reason and make choices that will bring true happiness.

I love that.  It focuses on choices.  It emphasizes that the person themselves has the knowledge and the power to make their own choices to bring happiness.  So many of us believe that the circumstances of our life (how many patients are on our schedules, where we work, what our spouses say, etc) determine our happiness.  Yet, that gives the locus of control and power to someone else.  Happiness is an inside job.  Per Socrates the more we know ourselves, the more we can make choices that will bring happiness.  

However, what is so interesting is that Socrates didn’t lecture about what he knew.  In fact, he claimed to be ignorant.  He simply asked questions. 

He asked questions that led his students to think for themselves, he led them to come to their own logical conclusions.

His questions were designed to enlighten.   These kinds of questions can stimulate critical thinking, curiosity, discovery, learning, and even challenge your own beliefs. 

Purposeful questions in the Socratic method can serve as a logical step-wise guide to help students come to their own insights.  The Socratic Inquisitor models joy in the quest for knowledge.  He or She is curious, seeks self-improvement, and realizes that we never stop learning from one another.

When done well this can allow people to a journey of discovery. 

When done poorly, the person can feel humiliated.  I’m guessing that having been in the culture of medicine, you likely have seen this done poorly.  This is what we refer to as “pimping”.  This is asking a question for the intent of humiliating the learner

Most of us in medicine are familiar with the Socratic method, whether we realize it or not.  Some of us are more familiar with how it evolved and was warped into “pimping,” which has evolved to maintain the hierarchy and cultivate humility.

For you, we’d like to focus on you formulating questions for yourself in the true Socratic method to stimulate learning. 

Yet often the questions we ask ourselves are more like pimping.  We ask ourselves things like,

“Why can’t I ever get my charts done?”

“Why am I always behind?”

“Why can’t I ever change?”

“Why can’t I ever lose weight?”

“Why is my partner such a pain?”

Our brains are designed to then answer these questions.  The disempowering questions and resulting answers are more along the lines of pimping.  Not helpful.  Designed to humiliate.

Think of what kind of questions you could repeatedly ask yourself that might be more helpful.  That Socrates might ask you (or us) if he were alive today and trying to create insights and learning through supporting someone on their journey of growth.

Perhaps things like

“What do I want to do more of?”

“What can I delegate today?”

“What can I say no to?”

“What can I control in this situation?”

“How can I make this a little better?”

“Are there any easy wins here?”

“How can I enjoy this process?”

“What is good about this moment?”

“What do I love about myself?”

“What are my strengths?”

“How can I make my life a little more fun?”

 “What am I excited about?”

“What can I learn from this?”

“What did I learn today?”

“Who have I helped today?”

“What is a possible solution to this problem?”

“What else could this mean?”

“How could I take better care of myself?”

“How could I choose to show myself some kindness in this situation?”

“Why has everything about my journey prepared me perfectly for this moment so that now I can take the next steps I want to take in my life?”

Practice asking yourself some useful questions.

That brain you have is pretty powerful and designed to answer questions.  You may just be surprised what great answers you start to discover.