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Psychotherapy Volume 30/Spring 1993/Number 1

ELEMENTS OF THE SOCRATIC METHOD:
I. SYSTEMATIC QUESTIONING

JAMES C. OVERHOLSER
Case Western Reserve University

The Socratic method includes three sions. The other two components will be de-
primary elements: systematic scribed in future papers.
questioning, inductive reasoning, and Originally, the Socratic form of inquiry (called
"the elenchus") followed a cross-examination for-
universal definitions. Although many mat (Seiple, 1985). Repetitive questioning was
psychotherapists allude to the Socratic used to force people to admit their ignorance
method, most refer only to the (Nelson, 1980) and thus rely on logic instead of
questioning style and few describe the pride or faith when deciding which beliefs are
process in adequate detail. The present valid (Schmid, 1983; Seeskin, 1987). Although
report describes the use of systematic die Socratic inquiry can help people become
more open minded (Schmid, 1983), it often re-
questioning in terms of its format, sulted in public humiliation (Chessick, 1982;
content, and process. Finally, an attempt Santas, 1979). As used today, the Socratic form
is made to provide an intermediate level of inquiry is viewed as a cooperative exploration
of structure so as to facilitate a shaping (Klein, 1986). Tactfully helping clients recog-
process during the interview. nize areas where they do not know the answers
can arouse a desire to learn (Robinson, 1971).
The questioning process should motivate clients
The Socratic method can be a useful technique to discover how to find the answers to their prob-
in many forms of psychotherapy (Overholser, lems (Seeskin, 1987).
1987; 1988). Aaron Beck (Beck & Emery, 1985; Systematic questioning involves the use of a
Beck, Rush, Shaw, & Emery, 1979) and Albert graded series of questions designed to facilitate
Ellis (1962) have alluded to the Socratic method independent thinking in clients. The questions in-
as part of their cognitive therapy approaches. volve the active and collaborative involvement
However, few authors have delineated the struc- of both therapist and client. Also, a progressive
tural or procedural components of the Socratic series of questions can be used to shape the cli-
method in adequate detail. This impedes the abil- ent's thought processes. The Socratic method of
ity of others to learn to apply the Socratic method questioning will be described according to its for-
in a reliable manner. The basic components of mat, content, and process of questioning.
the Socratic method are systematic questioning,
inductive reasoning, and universal definitions Question Format
(Johnson & Matross, 1975; Overholser, 1988; Questions can follow many different formats.
1991). Systematic questioning is the most widely Bloom (1956) and Sanders (1966) have described
used component and will be described in detail seven different types of questions: memory, trans-
in this paper as it is used in psychotherapy ses- lation, interpretation, application, analysis, synthe-
sis, and evaluation. An appreciation of question
I am indebted to Dalia Adams, Hilary Einhorn Katz, Kim
formats is important because the form of a question
Lehneit, and Patti Watson for comments made on an earlier can influence its effect. Clients can be led to en-
version of this manuscript. gage in different kinds of thinking by asking differ-
Correspondence regarding this article should be addressed ent types of questions. The question formats de-
to James C. Overholser, Department of Psychology, Case scribed below are arranged in order from simple to
Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH 44106. complex. However, the question formats are not

Clients learn more (Overholser. and skills. situations (Overholser. "What else because specific facts and details are forgotten could you do to correct this problem?". Instead. Memory questions require clients to recall or 1966). 1966). Translation questions help clients learn to follow the principles of de- can help identify gaps in the client's understand. Translation fect. The use of systematic ques- Interpretation questions help clients discover tioning can help clients notice inadequate evi- relationships among facts. 1991). thinking. The therapist should not have a pre- tively. tions focus on developing the conscious aware- clude: "What does it mean to you?". logical thinking. "What evidence do you have for to them (Legrenzi. Good questions elicit vide practice in the independent use of knowl- reasons instead of facts (Blank & White. Exam- facilitate learning. problems through the use of creative/divergent tions similar?". Examples of translation questions in. Overholser entirely distinct because complex questions include us here". to help them apply the information to specific sic information on which to build. the interpretation question may provide planned answer in mind and expect the client one idea and a relationship and ask the client to generate the same answer. clusions must be based on adequate evidence gies and inductive reasoning. Examples of analysis ques- when they discover relationships on their own tions include: "What do you think is causing the instead of simply having relationships explained problem?". asking the client "What does "When did the problem first begin?". However. "When was it mean to you?". marital problems seem similar in any way to your Synthesis questions encourage clients to solve problems at work?". "What would your logical conclusions. application questions pro- bering it (Sanders. the last time it happened?". interpretation questions can be used recognize information necessary to answer the to help clients learn to interpret symbolism from question. analysis questions mother say about this?". "What other ways could you look anything from your first marriage that would help at this situation?" does not limit the range of pos- 68 . selection specific facts and details. lems to information already possessed (Sanders. Interpretation questions may provide two wrong?". Thus. "What did you do Application questions ask clients to apply in- when it happened?". facts should serve as a means ples of application questions include: "What have to an end instead of an end in itself. Analysis ques- lel form. Examples of memory questions include inductive analogies. occa. Also. Nonetheless. this?". encouraging clients to focus on Also. "Are there things that make it ship between them. Alterna. The emphasis is on relating new prob- elements from simple questions.James C. Examples include: "Do your worse?". ductive logic when reasoning from cause to ef- ing and ensure proper understanding. "How more quickly than general principles. 1991). "How could you tell if you are right or 1990). 1991). This is you tried to correct this problem?". "How can ness of thought processes used for reaching we make sense out of this?". in order to and implementation of appropriate skills. Questions should focus in order to force clients to identify the specific on using information instead of simply remem. dence or logical inconsistencies in their beliefs nitions. Thus. both important as. Analysis questions stress the fact that con- questions can be useful with therapeutic analo. lem by breaking it into its parts. 1990). values. "How do they differ?". steps involved. questions to identify a second idea that follows from the should suggest many different possible solutions. This requires the identification. Translation questions require clients to change Analysis questions ask clients to solve a prob- the information or ideas into a different but paral. Thus. defi. edge and skills. questions seeking factual information are areas that have been discussed previously and often threatening because the client's answer can now need to be applied. bring information already possessed by clients sional use of memory questions can facilitate the into their conscious awareness (Chisholm. thus promoting objectivity and pects of the Socratic method (Overholser. For example. 1971. 1979) systematic questioning process by gathering ba. "How are these two situa. (Sanders. 1986). 1966). memory questions formation or skills to a specific problem situa- typically focus on the client's ability to remember tion. lem better?". McDaniel & Schlager. Memorized will you go about making these changes?" Appli- knowledge does not necessarily represent a high cation questions include a minimum of directions level of understanding. generalizations. Are there situations that make the prob- ideas and ask the client to identify the relation. "I wonder if we can learn For example. Questions are used to be wrong (Dillon. "What can we learn from it?". evidence.

ageable. 1986). Also. Evaluation questions can clude: "What do you look for in a marriage?". ically attempt to go beyond information gathering an overwhelming problem can seem more man- in order to emphasize the integration and synthe. 1984). "What do you hope to accomplish?") their thoughts and feelings. an important goal of can help cultivate and solidify the client's goals the Socratic method (Haden. synthesis The content of most Socratic questions is de- questions play an important role when using uni. decision making. the Socratic method uses a mix. and difficult to think and act in a rational manner. Also. When learn to distinguish facts from beliefs (Bloom. Synthesis questions are used to 69 . solving: problem definition. Systematic Questioning sible answers. Also. acceptable answers that are possible. signed to foster independent. alternatives. clarifications. ask- Evaluation questions comparing the actual per. mental aspects of the problem. 1990. Useful questions include: "How often sis of different sources of information (Over. ture of formats throughout the systematic ques. In order for analysis questions can be used to identify the ante- clients to avoid feeling interrogated by the inves. Emotional and interpersonal problems (Farrar. Long. synthesis. (Tomm. rational problem- versal definitions. Overholser (1987) has sug- dent who remains ambivalent about his career gested that the Socratic method can be integrated choice: "What does becoming a doctor mean to with the problem-solving approach developed by you?". Goals should be described in spe- In summary. with the client ex. "How bad does it get?" would you rate your marriage?". clients can be helped to (Dillon. memory questions can help ensure tioning process. knows the answer.g. The problem definition stage uses a series of tiqued through questions. For example. or direct statements tified problem. frequency. does the problem occur?". By evaluation questions because they elicit higher forcing clients to answer questions regarding the level cognitive processes. the Socratic method is often appear overwhelming to clients. Good Socratic questions allow a how long does it last?". Evaluation acceptable. and duration of the problem. taneously learn and apply the stages of problem- This decision-making process involves first iden. solving in clients. 1981) identify all relevant sources of information so thereby reducing the interrogational aspects of they can be synthesized into a unified whole. such as asking a medical stu. holser. "How do you can help clients identify what conditions are un- feel about yourself as a person?". they usually are part 1956). Finally. intensity. ing "What do you see the problem to be?". memory questions are used. be used to help identify the emotional and judg- "What does it mean to you to be a success?". making it more likely to rely on analysis. Then. 1986). However. cedents and consequences temporally sur- tigational process. Many questions can be rephrased of new and creative ways of coping with the iden- as reflections. Examples of evaluation questions to help clients operationally define a questions focusing on establishing standards in. Paradise. and implementa- ing how closely the idea or behavior meets these tion (see Table 1). of a broad interviewing style. Thus. it should be The generation of alternatives stage involves noted that not all questions need to be phrased using a series of questions to help clients think as questions. the therapist should avoid ask. synthesis questions often use inductive rea- soning to connect diverse elements into a mean. cific.. future oriented evaluation ques- questions can help clients clarify and integrate tions (e. "What formance to the client's standards include: "How makes that a problem?". 1991). & Long. the interview. "Are there ever times tremendous amount of latitude in the range of when the problem goes away completely?". 1987). A mixture of question formats an accurate and thorough assessment of the prob- promotes conceptually integrated understanding lem area. concrete. Question Content ingful pattern (Tomm. D'Zurilla & Goldfried (1971). objective in their description of problems as they pected to read the mind of the therapist. "When it happens. generation of coping tifying appropriate standards and then determin. rounding the problem so clients can begin to iden- ing questions for which the therapist already tify possible causes and potential solutions. Socratic questions typ. This integration Evaluation questions ask clients to make a uses systematic questioning to help clients simul- value judgment according to specified standards. and realistic terms (D'Zurilla. 1987). Also. Such a tendency makes for Analysis questions can help clients become more game-playing in the session. Controversial issues often can be cri. standards. specific problem area.

questioned properly (Seeskin. This process things went like they did?". energy. "How well do you that may limit perceivable options. "What could you lose?". Criti. they can make good decisions if formulate a plan of action (Bloom. clients implemented include: "Are you satisfied with should be able to identify the best coping alterna. Unexpected answers may be very Socratic questions may include implied directions appropriate and extremely useful (Blank & (Garner. Overholser TABLE 1. and emotions required successful should the problem recur. "How did you deal Finally. problem like this before?". 1987). 1956). + indicates question format plays a minor role with that content + + indicates question format plays a moderate role with that content + + + indicates question format plays a major role with that content encourage divergent thinking and to help clients knowledge. Questions facilitating the implementa- In the decision-making stage. assum. "What would be the worst thing that could hap- ful questions include: "Have you ever noticed a pen?". "Any other ideas of what might help?". behavior. how will you deal with it?". what do used to help clients identify the advantages and you plan to do?". Thus. systematic manner. the implementation stage involves with it then?". how things turned out?". Question Formats as Used with Different Problem-solving Content Question Format Question Content Memory Application Analysis Synthesis Evaluation Problem definition Generate alternatives Decision-making Verification Planning Appraisal Note. Useful cal thinking is postponed until a later stage in questions at this stage include: "What do you order to help clients overcome critical tendencies think needs to be done?". the management of a specific problem area. By examining the po. designed to promote a change of White. Use. tion questions to help clients plan the specific ing quality will follow. from this experience?". 1986). 70 . Application questions are designed ing options not limited by the therapist's frame to put a plan of action into effect (Bloom. Application think it will work?". questions are tion of the chosen strategy include: "So. Analysis and where you will do it?". appraise the outcome and help clients learn from jective value of its most likely outcome.James C. 1986). "Is there anything we can do clients can evaluate the probable short-term and to improve your chances of doing well?". "How well do you questions are used to promote critical thinking so think it will go?". of reference. 1978). Evaluation questions are evaluation and analysis questions can be used to used to examine each option in terms of the sub. "Next time the problem ing. The use of open-ended course of action that was selected in the decision- questions helps clients generate many useful cop. long-term consequences of each alternative in a After clients have implemented the response. 1956). Questions to implement the option. although clients may lack certain occurs. The first aspect of the goal at this stage is to increase the quantity the implementation stage involves using applica- and variety of options (D'Zurilla. "What could you gain by questions can be used to help clients learn about behaving that way?". making stage. their successes and failures. tive and appraise its effects. "Have you thought about when disadvantages of each coping option. "What can we learn can help clients learn how to maximize the bene. Clients can identify application questions are used to estimate the approaches that are either likely or unlikely to be amount of time. "What do you wish you fits and minimize the costs in their decision mak. "Would the same solution work asking clients to implement the chosen alterna- again?". "Why do you think tive or combination of alternatives. had done differently?". Finally. "How likely is it that would happen?". designed to appraise the strategy after it has been tential risks and benefits of each option.

else?" forces the client to evaluate the basic as- ent interviewing styles as the session pro. Patience is required of both parties in Splete. However. For example. The therapist alternates among several differ. asking cli- help the two of you learn to deal with this prob. holser. 1984). it may be useful to ask "Do you (Farrar. cratic method emphasizes a self-control approach Either too much or too little structure will prove (Chessick. repeatedly unable to follow the line of ques- ever. clients Questioning Process are likely to respond "I don't know" if asked "What else could you have done?". Both the decision and responsibility for action The explication occurs when the client has not rest with clients because only they will experi. in light of the previous explication. but quires an awareness of the process involved (Ha. & Long. 1985). the questioning process to the client's abilities For example. Thus. 1987). 1982). it can be useful to ent's defensiveness when seeking justification or ask "Is that a good sign or a bad sign?" to direct explanation of one's behavior (Long. a sequential progression. The So. their logic and helps promote insight into the rea- press their views and defend or abandon these soning they used to answer the question. & Long. are overly directive. the been implied in the leading question. It can be im- ence the consequences of their behavior. Clients may feel threatened if the client's attention onto a specific area. tion. it is important that the explication not occur very and the use of short sequences (see the Appendix often because it implies the therapist has mis- for a detailed example). Systematic Questioning In summary. Because the Socratic method uses a implications of the original leading question. Portes. 1957). The therapist should provide structure guide. the phrasing of the question should not push tioning (Kahn & Cannell. think talking about this with your spouse would The defense follows an explication. In this way. Some- views when probed (Seeskin. How. 1986). a series of questions can be used It is important to use an intermediate level of to guide the problem-solving process. 1981). judged the client's level of understanding and The leading question contains an implied as. clients may begin to pas- situation first-hand. Repeating or rephrasing the original ques- ent's response. The only to the extent necessary because if questions client is seen as the expert. 1992). structure when formulating the leading question. A simplification se- lem. 1981). quence can be used to reformulate the original ment?". "Why" questions can be effective if 71 . & clients onto issues of critical evaluation. explication. Evaluation questions can help clients ex. Instead of requesting factual in. Skillful ques- lem is solved and the client begins to learn the tions force the client to think instead of simply problem-solving process (Sklare. the thera- clients toward one response over another (Bern. Paradise. ents to defend their view. 1957). facilitating a self-discovery process. The defense forces clients to critique views. 1986). asking "Could you have done anything ops. The gresses. Socratic times asking "Why do you think so?" can help questions frequently offer two alternatives so as clarify their assumptions (Ennis. 1985. 1981). This kind of question provides adequate question at a more basic level (Blank & White. tioning process must not stop at this point. understood the leading question. 1957). Al- to minimize using excessively biased questions though "Why" questions may increase the cli- (Santas. & answer. pist should use the client's responses to adjust stein & Bernstein. can en- formation. a temporal sequence devel. For series of questions. disrupts the therapeutic relationship (Kahn & sumption. the leading question may ask clients courage clients to go beyond the "I don't know" to think about certain issues and express their response. Thus. the therapist serves as a ineffective. 1979). The ques- The effective use of systematic questioning re. Kahn & Cannell. 1984). For example. two goals are sively wait for the therapist to lead the session accomplished simultaneously: the specific prob. Paradise. 1982). Paradise. or would it just stir up more of an argu. Long. knowing the problem. sumption underlying the leading question. structure without unnecessarily biasing the cli. Five elements of the questioning process explication openly asks the assumption that had have been identified: the leading question. often serving as a spotlight to focus Cannell. example. the therapist must be prepared to re-evaluate the den. the defense. (Long. portant to make all assumptions explicit in order to test them (Haden. It is important for the therapist to order to persist with a line of questioning when place the responsibility on clients to solve their the answer does not seem readily apparent (Over- own problems (Long.

the process is simi. you do not keep handing the syndromes may lack the abstract abilities to bene- child the same piece. what does this tell you about Socratic questioning can be used to facilitate handling this type of problem?". letting to its solution (Sanders. systematic would happen?"." 72 . For example: "How do you think your interviewing clients from a different cultural parents will react?". In some ways. 1981). 1973). 1966). 1985). "So. Frequent use of comments and discussion can protect the therapeutic rela. Finally. The overuse of questions will develop skills they lack (Blank & White. 1986). The format of Socratic questions empha- out appearing to doubt or distrust the client. Paradise. 1991). what will you questioning should be used with caution. 1987) and reduce spontaneity by restricting the client's communi. 1982). Despite the advan. 1981). in short sequences. it & Dixon. The content of Socratic A sequential progression occurs when a second questions focuses on developing independent leading question is used to carry the discussion problem-solving skills in the client. content. & nitive exploratory process. Although the tenacious Conclusions questioning can be useful in forcing clients to pursue a persistent line of thought. systematic questioning should be used the answers they already possess (Navia. and integration of complex issues tions. and process must help the client think through the issues with. The Socratic method is not without its limita- preciation. 1982). Clients can learn to identify and self-correct il- dise. Many complications can arise when questions. ap. Finally. sistently refine the client's understanding. "If you are right. 1981). issues. Appendix: Socratic Questioning tional nature of an interview that relies solely on Process Example persistent questioning. self-initiated discovery. 1980). only make even small mistakes. 1986). Instead of cratic questions can ask "What reason do you asking clients to remember facts and details. limit the client's self-exploration (Long. Overholser they help the client to reason through a problem one question should be asked at a time. So- have for believing this?" without expressing cratic questions are more likely to encourage the doubts in the client's honesty or intelligence analysis. synthesis. 1979). too concrete to appreciate the complexities of the lar to helping a child assemble a puzzle. Likewise. The Socratic style often logical reasoning (Seeskin. The Socratic method can pro- should not be overused. Systematic questioning should not be used while avoiding questions that are too difficult for when the client is unlikely to benefit from a cog- the client to comprehend (Long. do next?". Thus. "Why do you think that background (Fletcher. Para. Patient: "I feel like such a failure when I tionship (Blank & White. 1980). & Long. dementia or other organic brain the proper place. sizes higher level cognitive processes. you can give the fit. the Socratic method may be ineffec- develop. The Socratic clients tell their own story (Johnson. sources of information. Thus. patients suffering hand the child a piece but the child cannot find from psychosis. method attempts to help clients evaluate their rea- soning (Chessick. the child can easily place the original tive with hearing impaired individuals and clients difficult piece. to explain and discuss the issues from a non- Socratic style. The therapist terplay of question format. Instead. resistance (Overholser. (Overholser. because of the emphasis on verbal child a few other pieces. 1992). The questioning cation to responses to specific questions (Engel process can be used to help clients identify and & Morgan. structions are often counterproductive (Claiborn tages of the systematic questioning process. and evaluation of different (Chisholm. The process closer to the intended goal. If you Socratic method. 1987) and learn to needs to be suspended or discontinued in order find answers independently.James C. Young children are Long. clients may Systematic questioning involves a complex in- feel threatened or interrogated. early questions should be whose primary language is different from that of used to lay the foundation for more complex the therapist. As the picture starts to interactions. alternating between Socratic Self-discovery is important because explicit in- and non-Socratic dialogue. helping clients realize Finally. Insight comes of systematic questioning emphasizes a collab- through a slow and methodological progression orative interaction between therapist and client (Nelson. A shaping process is used to per. So. Questions can limit mote autonomy (Overholser. This can help reduce the interroga.

P: I think they would enjoy it less and probably derful. P: I'd like hearing the praise. find something to criticize? T: So. G. how can we get you to be the good to agree? instructor toward yourself? P: No. I'm incom. I P: Well. T: What happens when you react like that? people who have no artistic abilities whatso- P: It tells me that I need to push myself if I ever. the praise? T: How would it affect their mood? P: If I hear it too often I won't believe it. I think it would help me enjoy learn. P: I guess if I focus on the positive things in T: What if the instructor said you made many myself. you could still find some good things for where I'm at and would get fat and lazy. but every so often you did T: How would it affect their motivation in something that really worked out well and class. T. P: I'd like hearing the praise but I wouldn't T: What happens if you don't sugar-coat it? necessarily believe it. it means I can't do as you deal with students? well as everyone expects of me. it might be more constructive with- mistakes and need to work harder to even out causing me to settle for where I'm at? get up to average level. and worthless? T: Why that one? P: Yes. Anxiety disorders and make him happy. & EMERY. to do a better job. I'd try. A. how would P: If I make mistakes. P: I would tell them how good they've done T: What would happen if instead of criticizing but point out ways they can improve their your shortcomings. I know I can at least do average. liked so I could give them some positive T: Let's look at this from a different angle. it's good job. I think it helps people enjoy what P: No. helping them to learn without needing other people to always help and enjoy learning. P: They'd be angry at me and depressed with T: What if the instructor didn't praise every. I guess so. I'd wonder if I could ever BECK. won't they could do. to say about their work? I have so many things I need to work on. P: I think I'd probably criticize their work. themselves. T: Which style would you want to have? T: Making mistakes means you're incompetent P: The one that praises their work. phobias: A cognitive perspective. Say feedback along with the suggestions on how you were taking one of your craft classes. How would you react? not try as hard. ing more. petent and worthless. me out. Systematic Questioning Therapist: "What does failure mean to you?" T: What if you were the instructor. you have made? T: So. they won't like T: What determines whether or not you believe me. they're doing and work harder at it. it looked won. P: I guess if I get too critical. thing you did. one who could always P: Yes. T: What would you think of the instructor? References P: I'd hate him. I might learn some things. he said you did a great job. Would praise or criticism make you do T: Why do you sugar-coat it? better? P: I don't know. T: Do these same things happen when you are T: What if you took a different class with a critical or supportive of yourself? different instructor. 73 . I'd settle well. but I yourself? wouldn't like the class. It would make T: But if you praise someone for doing a good me feel good about myself and what I job even though it's not perfect. I'd try to find some things I need to keep pushing myself. T: What if you had a few "craft-clods" in class. New York: Basic. you praised the progress work. what does this tell us about criticizing P: I'd hate it. How would you deal with them? ever hope to get any better. even with people who don't do very P: I'd stop trying to improve myself. (1985). Would you be likely T: So. I'm not doing a P: It has a positive effect on the students. I need to feel I can handle my job more constructive. If I make mistakes. settle for a poor performance? T: Would you stop trying to improve yourself? P: No.

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