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 http://mentoringassociation.org/personal-pronoun-power-in-mentor-questions/.]