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How to ask questions like Socrates

Classical philosopher Socrates taught us that asking a great question is often more powerful than providing a sound solution. Aware of the limitations of his knowledge — limitations we all have — Socrates believed that asking questions, rather than providing answers, enables those seeking meaning to develop deeper understanding on their own.

While Socrates’ approach, known as the Socratic method, is often practiced in academic and therapeutic settings, it is generally not nurtured in the business world. Some argue that despite its importance, the skill of posing good questions is not even recognized as essential managerial competency. When under deadline, managers with the best of intentions might see exploration through questioning as a waste of time. Why bother with dialogue if the best course of action is readily apparent?

The truth is there are times when a simple, well-thought-out answer is the best approach — particularly when it’s accompanied by a clear explanation. Teaching moments justifiably take a back seat to crises or time-sensitive requests. But by demanding a concrete response or defaulting to “telling” rather than helping employees develop analytical skills to self-direct activities, managers reinforce a sense of shortsightedness or interdependence that slows down the system.

In embracing their role as “the great answer provider,” managers are doling out fish, not creating a team of fishermen. As a result, employees learn that having a recommendation is often preferred over exploratory dialogue. As employees advance in their career, they become adept at solving problems. Their ability to apply a question-asking approach, however, wanes.

In Strategy+Business article “The Neuroscience of Leadership,” David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz explained that “brains are pattern-making organs with an innate desire to create novel connections. When people solve a problem themselves, the brain releases a rush of neurotransmitters like adrenaline.” This is the reason coaches and therapists tend to ask questions rather than provide answers — helping the person in need shape his or her own solutions is more effective. By asking the right questions, the person seeking advice is positioned to generate answers and develop solutions that stick.

Asking strong questions might sound simple in theory, but it can be quite difficult in practice. To develop this skill, consider your best experiences learning something — a language, a sport or the ropes of a job. How did you develop your understanding, confidence and ability to perform at a level of competence? What techniques did you find most useful? Now, narrow your focus to those that are most transferable to this challenge. What are three to five techniques you suspect will work best when honing your ability to ask questions?

When completing this exercise, we found these four tactics helpful in sharpening our question-asking capabilities.

  1. Pause. Despite feeling uncomfortable with silence, embrace it. Give the person seeking advice a moment to think, process and communicate. During moments of silence, draw connections and contemplate what subsequent questions will advance the conversation.
  2. Probe. Expand the dialogue with relevant, well-formed and challenging follow-up questions. Enable the person asking for input to reflect out loud and process, in a semistructured manner, what he or she is thinking.
  3. Repeat. Test, summarize and confirm understanding by parroting (or restating) key messages to show the communicator they were heard, and to help the person review his or her position.
  4. Practice. Whether in conversation with a trusted adviser, a good friend or someone else, create opportunities to refine these question-asking skills. Listen and observe how others respond to the approach. Try different techniques to see which are most natural and effective.

There are several reasons getting comfortable asking questions is so difficult: It might bump up against our ego, run contrary to our cultural position or communication style, or clash with our personality. Not having “the answer” challenges the traditional notion of what high performers do.

Recognize the role these factors play in your work style, and think about how you might cultivate greater confidence in accepting uncertainty associated with questioning. While you might be able to get away with, or even flourish, by providing answers immediately, as you gain responsibility in this increasingly complex and global world, learning to ask versus tell will become a necessity.

Daniel Dworkin and Holly Newman are consultants at Schaffer Consulting, a management consultancy that helps clients across industries navigate change. Dworkin also writes about management and innovation for The Huffington Post. Newman focuses on large-scale transformational change and performance improvement at Schaffer and holds a master’s degree in organizational psychology from Teachers College Columbia University.

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