6 Socratic Questions: What BAs Can Learn From Socratic Questioning

One thing only I know, and that is that I know nothing - Socrates, Classical Greek Philosopher

Where facts are clearly laid out, it reduces the need to ask questions or drill down for more information. In software projects however, the need to question everything cannot be overemphasised. In some cases, analysts have to question the relevance of system features or why things are done a certain way. 

Questioning is not only at the heart of software projects however, it is also at the heart of living. When we question, we learn, understand and grow. The questioning mind will always be one step ahead of those that simply accept what they are told in a robotic fashion.

When I came across the concept of Socratic questioning, I was quite intrigued by how powerful it can be when applied to both professional and personal endeavours. Thinking is governed by questions, not answers. Indeed every school of thought, project or system is born out of a bunch of questions to which answers are needed. 

Socratic questioning is very similar to critical thinking and seeks to uncover assumptions underlying our thinking and that of others by questioning the basis of all assertions. It operates according to the following key principles:

1) Thoughts or statements do not exist in isolation. We must seek to understand or at least, recognize the foundation (assumptions, biases and beliefs) that govern what others say. Seek to question these implications and understand them by asking key questions.

2) Treat all thoughts, assertions and statements as though they need development.

3) Thoughts are connected to one another. No thought exists in isolation. Seek out the connection between thoughts so that you can draw meaningful inferences.

Just in case you are wondering how this can be applied practically in the BA world, here are some questions that you can pose during stakeholder engagements, based on Socrates’ 6 types of questions:

1. Questions that help to clarify issues:  

  • What makes you say that?
  • Can you explain further what you mean by...?

2. Questions that probe assumptions:

  • Are we assuming that..?
  • How can we verify that?
  • Does this always hold true?

3. Questions that probe reason and evidence: 

  • Can you give me an example of what you mean when you say...?
  • What do you think causes this to happen?
  • Is there any reason to doubt this information or evidence?

4. Questions about perspectives: 

  • What would be an alternative to what you are suggesting?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of doing things this way?

5. Questions that probe consequences:

  • How does this affect the business?
  • What are the positive and negative effects of following this approach?

6. Questions about questions: 

  • Why do you think this question is relevant?

Organisations should strive to encourage character traits like curiousity, quest for self improvement and understanding in their employees to ensure that innovative ideas are brought to the surface by nurturing an environment that constantly questions status quo. Socratic questioning is widely adopted by teachers to improve the questioning minds of their students but can be employed by anyone interested in developing their thinking and that of others.