Some time ago, I found myself increasingly in the position of being asked to provide advice, guidance, and support to others. More and more, I had people asking me to help them with business ideas; with relationship insight; and with figuring out what they wanted in life in general.
Having neither the wisdom nor the experience to be able to answer these kinds of questions to anything approaching good effect on my own, I nevertheless came to be viewed as both wise and experienced by nearly everyone I advised.
This, of course, was due to one small trick I’ve learned to use to unlock the answers hidden deep within the subconsciousnesses of those around me: Socratic questioning.
Ever heard of it?
If not, you’re going to enjoy this post – because Socratic questioning is absolutely one of the best and most effective tools there is at getting to the heart of the matter and solving problems, both with others and with yourself.
The Expert Tells; the Master Asks
When I first began to be sought out by those in need of advice, I’d frequently tell them what to do.
“You’re having trouble getting that business process to work because there are too many steps and too many bottlenecks; you need to cut out extraneous touches on this work flow and you’ll stop having so many hang ups.”
“You’re going about figuring out your business all wrong. You’re planning for what the business is going to be like in five years but you don’t know how you’re going to make it work over the next six months.”
“You’re involved in a relationship where you’re doing too much and getting too little in return. Stop chasing after this other person and either cut the relationship off altogether or figure out how to control yourself and let them start investing more too.”
And do you know what I found out?
Everybody agreed I was right, but nobody listened.
And then they’d come back to me later and complain that the problem was still happening.
“Did you do what I told you to do?” I’d ask.
“No, I tried something else and it didn’t work,” they’d tell me.
“Go do what I told you to do and don’t come back until you’ve done it,” I’d say, exasperatedly.
And they still wouldn’t do it.
I spent a long time feeling frustrated that no one ever seemed to take the advice they came seeking. Why were they even asking for my help in the first place, and why did they keep coming back asking again if they weren’t going to take it?
The answer for me came in dealing with the most complex, complicated problems I was running into. The ones where I really didn’t have a ready solution for the questioner.
Vague, amorphous questions like:
- What kind of business should I start?
- What kind of friend should I make?
- What kind of person should I date?
- What kind of job should I look for?
- What should I do with my life?
Honestly, if you can’t answer that for yourself, how can I be expected to?
So, the only way to answer those questions, I found, was to ask the questioner back.
“What kind of business should I start?” he’d ask.
“Well,” I’d say, “what kind of business would you like to start?”
Sometimes people will have an answer for you right away. Sometimes they’ll say they don’t know. Sometimes they’ll tell you they’ve never thought about it before, and they’ll take a moment to consider.
Whatever the reply, the next thing out of your mouth is another question.
And, in no time flat, you’ve just helped someone answer their very own question – sometimes, you help them figure out something that had stumped them for decades.
Socratic Questioning: The Process
Here’s the general process I follow during Socratic questioning:
- “What would you like to have / be doing?” or “Who would you like to know / be friends with / have a relationship with?”
- “Why aren’t you doing this right now?”
- “What do you need in order to start doing this?”
- “When would you like to start doing this?”
- “What targets would you like to set to help you get focused and stay focused?”
By following this general process, you can help many people coming to you solve many problems, entirely on their own, with nothing but you as questioner to help them realize they already know the answers.
Sometimes you need to employ your expertise to ask the right questions. For instance:
You: “What kind of business would you like to build when you build your business?”
Them: “I just don’t know what kind of business I want to do.”
You: “All right. What are your skills?”
Them: “I’m good at writing, graphic design, and building presentations.”
You: “Got it. Are you someone who’s able to focus on something for a while and build it up, or do you need constantly changing projects to keep you involved and motivated?”
Them: “I have a pretty short attention span, so I need something that keeps me engaged.”
You: “Noted. You’ll probably struggle to stay the course starting a business up from scratch, so your best bets are either going to be buying an established business or website already that you can work on sporadically and will be fine running without you from time to time, or starting an outsourcing business where you’re outsourcing your skills as a writer, designer, and presentation builder on a channel like eLance.com, Guru.com, or oDesk.com so you’re always getting new projects and you can do a succession of short-term deals. Does either of those sound appealing to you?”
Them: “Yeah, actually. I know a little about building websites; maybe I could buy a site that’s already established.
You: “Great. You’ll want to check on Flippa.com; you can find websites in all stages of built there and find something that fits your budget and how involved you want to be. Get an autopilot Adsense or affiliate site for minimal involvement; in fact, I’d probably recommend starting with something like that even if you’re feeling more ambitious just so you don’t overshoot yourself. Be a little conservative when venturing into a new field like business ownership.”
Them: “Thanks, that’s a great idea! I’m really excited about seeing what kind of business I can start playing around with now.”
You can employ Socratic questioning like this combined with your own degree of expertise to help steer people toward solutions for their dilemmas quite reliably. A few secrets for getting the best end result possible:
- Give people options. Don’t just tell them, “I think you could do this,” tell them, “Your options are going to be A if you do this, or B if you want to do that. C’s an option too, but it’s not as easy to do as A or B.”
- Don’t push them to decide. Let people answer the questions you ask them at their own speed. Pushing them for a decision makes it less likely they arrive at a satisfactory conclusion.
- Leave the credit to them. When people thank you for your help, be sure to tell them that they were the ones who answered their own questions – you merely helped them along the way. This is the sign of a true teacher – empowering people to be able to solve their own problems.
Oh, and before we wrap this post up, you might remember I said at the start of it that you could use Socratic questioning to solve your own problems and issues too – and you can.
How can you use it that way?
Sit down in front of a computer or a piece of paper and write down each question as you’d ask it to someone else – and then answer the question yourself. Before you know it, you’ll have solved your very own problem – or else, you’ll know exactly what you don’t know but need to in order to get the solution you so desire.
And if you enjoyed learning about Socratic questioning, you really won’t want to miss all the great tips, tools, techniques, and insights on offer in my newsletter – it’s everything you’ll need to get yourself on the road to a productive, successful business and a productive, successful life. Sign up now to start getting my newsletter delivered straight to your inbox:
Until next time.