As kids we are taught that there is no such thing as a stupid question. And it turns out, asking questions can actually do more than just make you smarter and help you learn new things — it can also make you a better leader.
Well, recently our CEO Kate has gotten into the habit of turning our biggest questions back on us. When I forward an email up to her with a tricky customer question, she replies right back with, “What do you think we should say?”.
By turning our questions back on us, suddenly Kate has given us the opportunity to find the answers ourselves — and most of the time, we realize we actually know more than we think we do.
It turns out when you give people the tools to answer their own questions, it often takes little more than reminding them they probably do have the tools they need to help them do amazing work. You don’t even necessarily have to provide any instruction or additional information — just give people the opportunity to realize that they are totally capable of finding the right answer and doing the right thing on their own.
In fact, when you do this you begin to create mini-CEOs: people who understand how to do their jobs better than you do, and who can begin to think proactively and tactically about how to do their best work with less and less instruction.
And doing that makes you a pretty amazing manager.
This strategy has been in management for a long time, but it actually originated long before the business world we all know and love ever even existed. It was invented by Socrates, and is today referred to as the Socratic method.
What is the Socratic method?
The Socratic method is a strategy wherein you persuade or teach by asking questions rather than persuading someone with a statement.
It is typically used in two different ways:
As the response to a question: next time you’re asked something, you can respond with a Socratic question that will indirectly end up providing an answer
As a way to teach or persuade someone of something without just pushing them to do it because you told them to
As a leader, learning how to ask these questions can provide numerous benefits.
- It gives ownership of finding the solution to the asker, even though they came to you for an answer. Imagine that! Being asked a question can actually take a load off your plate when you use it as a teaching moment. And in the future, you’ve empowered this person to seek out their own answers or feel confident making a decision they might have initially come to you about.
- It encourages you to turn your assumptions into questions. We all make assumptions when we speak, and asking the right questions makes you re-consider what you are taking for granted. What knowledge or experience are you presuming, and how can you help this person get what they need?
- It generates a conversation when you ask open-ended questions, allowing for collaboration and the opportunity to build a relationship with the question asker. People like to be asked what they think, so you build trust by showing the question asker that you value their opinion on something they thought was important enough to bring to you.
- You get an invaluable teaching moment. Sure, you could probably answer whatever you are being asked but we’ve all heard the saying, “You can give a man a fish and he’ll have food for a day. Or you can teach a man how to fish and he’ll have food for a lifetime.” When you empower your team to know how to do their best work without you, they’ll work more confidently, more efficiently, and with a fuller understanding of their role.
How to ask a Socratic question
Socratic questions typically do the following:
Cause the listener to genuinely consider what you are saying instead of immediately jumping to a response
Have you ever noticed how questions often cause people to respond emotionally (defensively, angrily, etc.) or very quickly (sometimes even before you finish your question)?
That’s because the questions you’ve been asking aren’t encouraging further thought. And/or they aren’t being asked to receive a genuine response, they are being asked with an agenda behind them.
When you’re trying to use Socratic questions, then, it is imperative that you go into those conversations with the intention to listen and learn. It is the other person’s opportunity to talk and teach themselves, so resist the urge to jump in. Instead, give them plenty of space and then try to find follow-up questions that continue to allow the person to work through ideas.
Even a simple, “And why is that?” or “How come?” or “And then what?” can be enough to encourage people to keep going.
Lead others to your point of view, especially if you’re using a question to teach someone something/persuade them
How can you frame a situation so that this other person can begin to see it from your perspective?
This usually means asking questions that help them uncover information they already know. If someone isn’t sure how to handle a bug, for example, (should they do a quick fix or dive back into the code and do an overhaul?) it can be helpful to ask them what they think they should do and why.
Then you can ask them to tell you what the biggest priorities for the team are. Does their plan align with those priorities? If so, then it’s probably okay to go ahead with their idea, right? And if not, how can they pick a solution that will keep them in line with your team priorities?
Provide ownership to the other person
People like the conclusions they draw on their own more than the one’s that are just offered up to them, and it’s more valuable for them in building up confidence and expertise in the long run. Ask questions that are going to make them think and arrive at their own solution!
When people see they are capable of coming up with brilliant solutions themselves, they are more likely to do it again.
It does take much longer to respond to a question or teach someone something by asking them a Socratic question in response but it is far more valuable in the long run (for both of you) than a quick response.
However, having an empowered and capable team will ultimately save you lots of time in the long run by releasing you from needing to be consulted on every issue or small fire. Tack on an extra 15 minutes to your 1:1s every week, and you’ll see that time returned to you over and over.
Begin with a “who, what, when, where, or why.”
All of those words engage and start a conversation rather than shut one down, by opening up the dialogue to the other person’s thoughts.
Most questions can be rephrased to use one of those words.
For example, “Wouldn’t ____ work?” can easily be rephrased as “Why wouldn’t we try ___?” which invites the other person to formulate reasons your suggestion wouldn’t work, rather than simply nod their had that ____ might work. You want to encourage a discussion whenever possible.
Rarely end after the first question
Socratic questions should naturally invite more questions or discussion instead of just ending with your first question.
- Rarely if ever have one answer. If your question has an obvious or correct answer, it probably isn’t a Socratic question.
- Are usually not multiple choice. If your question is multiple choice you’re automatically limiting the scope of the answer the person you are asking will consider or respond with.
- Start with a “because” statement. That’s a conversation ender and Socratic questions encourage further discussion, since when your manager tells you the reason why something is the way it is, it can be hard for most people to want to argue with their boss’ logic or ideas.
Making Socratic questions part of your leadership process is going to be hard at first. It’s not natural for most of us to “ask” and not “tell”. (This is why Socratic questions are so powerful in the first place — we all prefer to hear our own opinions than to invite someone else to tell us theirs.) Plus, it takes more thought and effort than asking superficial questions or just telling your team what you need them to do.
But, it will become more natural over time, especially when you begin to see the power of a team that is run as a collection of people who completely own their role and feel empowered to do their best work.
Have you ever used Socratic questions to lead, or had a leader use them effectively with you? We’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments!