A Research Paper created by Ujjalendu Gupta
(Business & Executive Coaching, INDIA)
All I know is that I know nothing – Socrates
Do you like to face questions at any time? When someone asks you a question, do you feel challenged or threatened or under scrutiny? When a five-year old kid asks you “Why does the month of February have only 28 days?” – do you feel inadequate? We often feel uncomfortable with questions thrown at us, whether by parents or by our bosses or even our children. In fact, questions have much greater usefulness in life than we usually realize. The purpose behind the question and the manner in which the questions are asked, will determine whether they are serving useful purposes or not. Questions which help to raise curiosity levels within the mind of the respondent and encourage him to think for himself will be more purposeful. Adopting a lifestyle of curiosity, and using purposeful questions in the process, can lead to significant benefits in many aspects of our life, both professional and personal.
The origin of the art of questioning, for the purposes of critical thinking in a disciplined manner, can be traced back to the Greek philosopher Socrates. Socratic questioning has a structure and a method which helps to unearth the basic issues and probe beneath the surface. It pursues problematic areas of thought, helps analysis and arrives at judgments or conclusions through proper reasoning. In order to solve a problem and/or to settle a disagreement, the issues will be broken down into a series of questions. The answers to these will then gradually eliminate some of the hypotheses and distill the knowledge in order to progress towards the solution the person is seekig.
Socratic questioning may be defined as the art of asking questions and pursuing answers which aims at one or more of the following – (a) investigating the truth of a theory, (b) expanding an idea present in the mind but not yet developed, (c) supporting the respondent to arrive at a logical conclusion, (d) eliciting admission of a statement that can be examined for truth.
Categories of Socratic questions
Socratic questions can be categorized in a number of ways for the purposes of analysis. Three of the important ways of categorization are analytic questions, assessing questions and system questions.
A. Analytical Questions are those relating to elements of thought and help us break the issue into its component parts so that we can then focus on each part for further thinking and probing. Such questions will cover the following types of elements.
- Goals and Purpose. These questions will reflect on the goals, agenda or purpose. (What is the goal of this discussion? What is our central agenda? What other goals do we need to consider?)
- Assumptions. These are to check and understand the assumptions behind the reasoning. (What are the aspects we are taking for granted? Why are you assuming that? What can you assume instead?)
- Information. Questions in this part attempt to understand the background information and experience. (What information are you basing that comment on? What experience do you have to support this?)
- Implications and consequences. These questions are to check the direction of thought and the implications and consequences that follow from it. (What are you implying by saying this? Have you considered the implications of this suggestion?)
- Questions of basic issue. These are to understand the questions and basic issues which give rise to current thought. (Are we addressing the right question? What are the questions that guide the way you respond in such situations?)
- Concepts, ideas and viewpoints. These questions will focus on the concepts that define and shape thought and the point of view or frame of reference within which thought takes place. (Are we using the appropriate concepts or do we need to rethink the concepts? Could you explain what the main idea you are putting up here is? Is our question a legal or ethical one? Which of these possible viewpoints appear most relevant in this case?)
B. Assessing Questions target the standards of thought and the quality of reasoning in accordance with universal intellectual standards. Questions of this type cover areas such as some of the examples mentioned below.
- Clarity – seeking clarity of the statements made through elaboration and examples. (Could you tell me more on this? Can you please elaborate and give an example to illustrate your point? I understand that you are saying this – is that correct?)
- Precision and accuracy – seeking to validate the statements and getting additional details. (Could you be more specific? How can I verify if this is true or not?)
- Depth and Breadth – seeking to assess the depth required for the issue at hand and how far below the surface one needs to go. Breadth of thinking will depend on broader perspective needed for the issue. (What factors make this a difficult or complex issue? What are other point of view can we bring in here? Should we look at this from an opposing point of view?)
- Relevance and significance – checking whether thinking is straying from the issue or not and whether the issues considered are of due weightage. (What relevance has this to the problem in hand? How does that help us with the issue? Which of these facts are important? Is this the most important challenge to take into consideration?)
- Logic, inferences and conclusions – testing the rationality of the thinking process and the inferences and conclusions made. (What will you say one can conclude from this evidence? Does all this make sense together? Could you explain your reasoning? Is there another possible interpretation?)
C. System Questions focuses on systems of thought, that is, the type of reasoning required by the question.
- One-system questions. These require evidence and an established procedure to find the answer, which will be the only “correct” answer. The questions are settled by fact or by definition or by both. Most scientific enquiry based questions belong to this category. (What is your height and weight? By what process does ICF credentialing take place? What is the role of Higgs-Boson in the universe? What is the chemical composition of alcohol?)
- No-system questions. These questions are settled in accordance with one’s personal preferences or opinion. There are no real facts to be considered here and there is no correct answer. (What will you prefer – a holiday exploring historical places or a relaxing sea beach? Do you like to read books or watch movies?)
- Conflicting-systems questions. Such questions require you to make a judgment call. There are multiple competing view points, the facts are debatable and within these one has to choose. There are more than one arguable answer, some better well-supported answers and some worse poorly-supported ones, but no correct answers. These questions are predominant in human disciplines, like history, philosophy, art, sociology etc. (Should capital punishment be abolished? What were the reasons for the economic downturn of the last decade? What will be a better approach in managing teams – coaching or directing?)
There are further categories of Socratic questions which cannot be covered in this article and the idea has been to provide the reader with a conceptual framework of critical questioning.