Socratic Dialogue is a form of Q & A that is designed to stimulate critical thinking, new ideas and presuppositions.
This method bears the name of the philosopher Socrates, who used it as a method of teaching 4 centuries B.C.
Socratic Dialogue, also known as Socratic Questioning, is a useful method of discussion/reflection to shift our attention to a more conscious – less habitual way – of noticing things.
“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”
– Wayne Dyer
This is one of the main tenets behind Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Cognitive Processing Theory, and many models dealing with psychological empowerment in increasing resilience, improving performance and inspire change towards one’s desired outcome.
Socratic Dialogue, named as such, is an art that has been credited as originating from ancient Greece. The art was focused on using skills in philosophy, logic and rhetoric to entertain, impress, or persuade an audience to accept the speaker’s point of view.
And, yes, this speaker can be you.
Have you ever talked your self to see something in a different light?
You can think of Socratic Dialogue as an art that:
- attracts our attentional networks
- disrupts habitual ways of thinking
- recruits cognitive flexibility in making decisions using knowledge of our ideals, values, desired outcomes, strengths, resources and this new information from a fresh perspective.
1. Concise, directed, and clear
- The attention remains on the you, and should avoid jargon, and should reduce confusion.
2. Open, yet with purpose
- You are required to actively engage, and there should be a clear rationale behind each question.
3. Focused but tentative
- The focus is on the issue under discussion, yet does not assume that you have the answer.
- The questioning does not suggest there is a correct or preferred answer.
The kinds of questions that were found to have high yield at the Beck Institute (as presented to Dr. Chugh during his attendance of training workshops):
- What is the evidence that my thought is true? What is the evidence that my thought is not true?
- What’s an alternative explanation or viewpoint?
- What’s the worst thing that could happen and how would I cope if it did?
- What’s the best that could happen?
- What’s the most likely outcome?
- What is the effect of telling myself this thought?
- What could be the effect of changing my thinking?
- What would I tell someone else if he/she viewed this situation in this way?
- What should I do now?
More examples can be found at https://positivepsychology.com/socratic-questioning/
When someone close to you starts asking you questions, you usually know where they’re going with their questions.
- Like that, if you were to ask yourself questions, how do you remove your own bias?
- How do you ask the questions in a way where you ‘don’t see yourself coming’?
- That is, it’s pretty likely that your going to ask yourself questions to get to the answer that (you think) “you already know”.
Say in a courtroom, there is a jury that already “knows” the defendant is “guilty” (Think of the movie “To Kill a Mockingbird”); they’re only going to hear the answers that prove the defendant’s “guilt”.
And if, hypothetically speaking, they had to ask “impartial questions”, would they be able to?
In the back of their minds, they already believe the defendant is guilty, so it would be less likely they would be able to make a question that elicit a different perspective.
So, like that, you probably could see yourself coming a mile away with your questions, or even worse (which is more likely), you won’t.
So, how would you create a enough distance from your thoughts so you can take yourself away from being you – with all your prejudices, and tendencies to see things a certain way – just long enough to entertain an alternative perspective?
There are many techniques, some are:
- Psychotherapy, and talking it out with others (being aware of their biases)
- Expressive writing
- Lifestyle techniques like having more attention place on good things in your life rather than your problems
- Attentional techniques that create distance from your own thoughts.
- Discovering the origin of a thought (taking care not to ruminate)
“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so. “
– Mark Twain
If Socratic Dialogue is done well, it creates distance from your own thoughts.
There is a “trick” that can help.
- Remember, to be curious – without prejudice, and without knowing the answer – is helpful for Socratic Questioning.
Who often asks questions, without prejudice, and without knowing the answer?
So, you could imagine you were a 6-year-old asking the questions…or you were asking a 6-year-old in the same situation as you these questions.
Or, say you were beating yourself up over something, you could imagine someone you don’t care much for was beating you up over something too…chances are your responses would be quite different than when you beat up on yourself.
There are many similar mental strategies to create distance from our thoughts long enough so that we can ask an unbiased Socratic Question
- not subconsciously designed to elicit and answer already in our head; kind of like the answer creating the question
Unbiased Socratic Questions are required for critical thinking and a different perspective to change course from where you are right now.
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”
– Albert Einstein
A 30 year-old female post-concussion syndrome patient was struggling with post-traumatic headaches.
She tried many treatments with her GP, neurologist, and with our clinic but had, for some reason or another, resisted psychological and dietary interventions.
CBT is the most evidence-based psychological intervention for headaches, with an efficacy similar to medication in adults (CBT is superior to medication in the long-term) and superior to medication in those under 18-years-old.
CBT revolves around Socratic Dialogue.
This patient slipped and fell on December 31st while with her friends celebrating New Year’s Eve.
She told herself the following things:
- I should be better by now
- It was my fault I slipped & fell
- I deserve this
- I should be back at work
- They (her work) think I’m faking
- I’m going to have to climb the ladder all over again (and I won’t be able to cope)
Some Socratic Questions could look like this:
- Why do you say that?
- Did you intentionally walk on icy sidewalks?
- Did you know the city would have missed a patch when salting?
- How many times have you fallen walking?
- Do you usually look down at the ground when you walk?
- (her decision to wear stilettos that night was offered as evidence for fault) Were you the only one wearing stilettos ? Is that unusual for New Year’s Eve amongst your friends & family?
- How would you normally get around after having two drinks?
- What makes you think that you shouldn’t have suffered a concussion when you hit your head?
- From times before when you walked outdoors under similar conditions, did you have any reason to suspect that it was dangerous?
- What would you tell your younger sister if she said the same thing?
- What would she say to you if she knew you were saying this to yourself?
- Is there another way of looking at this situation?
- What could be the effect of changing your thoughts?
- What if and adversary were to say that to you?
- Interestingly, she said that she would just accept it and not defend herself.
- However, we then asked her what she would say if that adversary said the same thing to your mother?
- She said she would not be having that, and that she would stand up for her mom….
- Why would it be okay to defend your mom, but not you?
- This is an example of “Cognitive Dissonance” (see next section)
There are hundreds of questions you could ask, with curiosity, non-judgment and a not-knowing posture that would help identify the contextual factors that clarify the matter more accurately; and foster critical thinking…and hope…and self-agency to move ahead.