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Socratic Inquiry

My BCI friend and work colleague Denise DeLuca re-awakened my awareness of the value that Socrates brought to the art of debate, and my understanding of why he became unpopular due to his ability to shake the foundations of others' certainty. Here's a reminder of the basic techniques used in Socratic Inquiry - do try them, as playing with only questions, and leaving the answers for another day is as powerful as it is enjoyable.  I've lost the source of the suggestions below; if anyone comes across them, do tell. 

Clarifying the concept and context

Thinking more about what exactly they are asking or thinking about. Prove the concepts behind their argument. Basic 'tell me more' questions that get them to go deeper.

  • Why are you saying that?
  • What exactly does this mean?
  • How does this relate to what we have been talking about?
  • What is the nature of ...?
  • What do we already know about this?
  • Can you give me an example?
  • Are you saying ... or ... ?
  • Can you rephrase that, please?


Checking assumptions

Probing the assumptions helps people think about the presuppositions and unquestioned beliefs on which they are founding their argument. This can shake the foundations and can really be very powerful.

  • What else could we assume?
  • You seem to be assuming ... ?
  • How did you choose those assumptions?
  • Please explain why/how ... ?
  • How can you verify or disprove that assumption?
  • What would happen if ... ?
  • Do you agree or disagree with ... ?


Probing reasons, evidence and rationale

When people give a rationale for their arguments, dig into that reasoning rather than assuming it is a given. People often use un-thought-through or weakly understood supports for their arguments.

  • Why is that happening?
  • How do you know this?
  • Show me ... ?
  • Can you give me an example of that?
  • What do you think causes ... ?
  • What is the nature of this?
  • Are these reasons good enough?
  • Would it stand up in court?
  • How might it be refuted?
  • How can I be sure of what you are saying?
  • Why is ... happening?
  • Why? (keep asking it -- you'll never get past a few times)
  • What evidence is there to support what you are saying?
  • On what authority are you basing your argument?


Questioning perspectives and viewpoints

Most arguments are given from a particular position. So attack the position. Show that there are other, equally valid, viewpoints.

  • Another way of looking at this is ..., does this seem reasonable?
  • What alternative ways of looking at this are there?
  • Why it is ... necessary?
  • Who benefits from this?
  • Why is it better than ...   
  • How are ... and ... similar?
  • What would ... say about it?
  • What if you compared ... and ... ?
  • How could you look another way at this?

Checking implications and consequences

The argument that they give may have logical implications that can be forecast. Do these make sense? Are they desirable?

  • Then what would happen?
  • What are the consequences of that assumption?
  • How could ... be used to ... ?
  • What are the implications of ... ?
  • How does ... affect ... ?
  • How does ... fit with what we learned before?
  • Why is ... important?
  • What is the best ... ? Why?

Question the question

And you can also get reflexive about the whole thing, turning the question in on itself. Use their attack against themselves. Bounce the ball back into their court, etc.

  • What was the point of asking that question?
  • Why do you think I asked this question?
  • What does that mean?


Reader Comments (1)

Andy, this is almost more useful when planning action, to check that you've covered all the bases and really worked out what you are going to do, and why.



December 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJoanna Cary

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