The Socratic Method—The Key to Effective Mentoring

by Doug Lawrence

When we facilitate the International Certification for Mentoring mentor training courses, the discussion around the Socratic Method is always a good one. We don’t realize that we use this technique in a lot of our day-to-day situations. It does take some practice in order to fine tune the technique, but the journey is well worth the time and effort.

This method dates back to the era of its namesake—classical Greek philosopher Socrates. It is described as a form of inquiry and discussion between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to illuminate ideas. It has evolved over time but has never been truly used to its full benefit. The Socratic Method is a perfect solution to the development of “critical thinking skills,” which are needed by most of us today. We are faced with many challenges and opportunities where solid problem solving and reasoning are crucial, no matter what level we are at in an organization.

The Socratic Method is something that “effective mentors” have in their tool box. It is a means for us to work with people to help them grow on a personal and professional basis. It will also help us determine when it is timely to introduce the services of a coach to assist in the professional growth.

Active listening is another tool that we must have in our mentoring tool kit. I want you to take your active listening skills to another level where you are listening for trigger words in the conversation that will guide you to the next series of questions. The trigger words may provide you with some guidance on what to ask next, and they may also be an attempt to get you away from that particular topic due to sensitivities that will need to be explored. One of the techniques that I recommend you practice is the visualization of a conversation before it happens. Imagine the conversation starting off and then branching off into other areas. If you can visualize how you might respond to these changes in direction, you will be better prepared for your meeting with your mentee. Mental imagery/visualization is a technique that we use with sport athletes to help them mentally prepare for their competition. It can be used in a business setting as well. A book called Miller’s Bolt by Thomas Stirr is an excellent reference on how this can work in a business setting.

Here are some samples of the Socratic Method to use as reference points for your own journey as an effective mentor.

  • How could we frame that in a positive context?
  • When we talk in a negative manner, how does that make you feel?
  • Help me understand what we mean by that?
  • Is there a different way that we could do [blank]? (Use of critical thinking skills)
  • What would happen if we were to do [blank]? (We are giving the answer but asking them to focus on outcomes.)
  • When you answered my last question, I sensed you were holding back. What do we need to do to work through that?

You will note that I have used the term “we” a lot in the questioning. If you can imagine being asked a series of questions with a frequent use of the term “I” and “You,” you would likely become defensive at some stage and feel that the questions were more of an attack than anything else. Using the terminology of “we” and “us” signifies a more collaborative approach to problem solving but still places the accountability for the outcomes with the mentee.

Instructing people what to do is the easiest way to do things. Taking the time to walk them through problem solving using the Socratic Method is the better approach. If you continue to solve the problems [for your protégés], they will keep coming back to you with those very same problems. You need to look seriously at what is in your leadership tool kit and ensure it includes the Socratic Method and Mentoring.



[Editor’s note: For more on the topic of pronoun use, please see “Personal Pronoun Power in Mentor Questions” by Barry Sweeny, available at]

About the Author: Doug Lawrence

Doug Lawrence
Doug Lawrence is the founder of TalentC® a Human Resources solution provider. He has over 30 years of mentoring and leadership experience in both federal and provincial environments as well as the private sector.Doug was instrumental in launching the first Provincial Human Resources mentoring program in Saskatchewan and has worked with the HR Association in Manitoba to launch their Human Resources Mentoring Program. Doug is a member of the Advisory Boards for and Futures Institute Inc. and the Program Advisory Committee for Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology. Doug is a member of the Board of Directors for the Nigeria Canada Forum.

Doug was instrumental in developing a curriculum to train people on how to become effective mentors. He has also created an International Certification for Mentors. The curriculum and the designation are accredited by a 3rd party and are ISO compliant. TalentC is the only Accredited Training Organization in the world today that can deliver the International Certification for Mentoring program. The curriculum is Gold Seal Certified by the Canadian Construction Association and has been pre-approved as a recertification credit provider with HRPA, BCHRMA, HRIA, SAHRP, HRMAM, IPMA and the SHRM (HRCI) in the United States. Doug is a Certified Mentor Practitioner and a Certified Mentor Facilitator.

Doug has presented on mentor related topics that demonstrate the business value that mentoring can bring to an organization. Doug’s passion is contagious. He is committed to helping organizations and people be successful and has dedicated his life to the coaching and mentoring of others.