The Socratic Dialogue

One of the powerful conversational techniques is the Socratic dialogue, a method which boils down to making your conversational partner aware of what precisely they are saying, what exactly they are thinking and what they are actually doing. The major difference between ordinary conversation is that this awareness is reached via questioning and literal reflection instead of directly telling them. As was mentioned in a previous post, the Socratic dialogue is based on reflecting meaning, in other words, it’s not about the facts nor the emotions those facts elicit, but what this all means (and what the impact is) for the other.

It’s about insight, not about the answer

The major element of this dialogue is what is known as the Socratic question. This kind of question isn’t strictly speaking rhetorical, but the answer is seldom relevant. The main purpose is to get the other to think whether the convictions they hold on a matter are actually valid. When a woman says that whatever she wants from her husband he cannot give her, for example, then the conclusion is that she shouldn’t bother to expect it of him. If he isn’t capable of giving something, she might as well accept that. A typical Socratic question in such a situation would be: ‘So you’re saying your husband isn’t capable of giving you what you want from him. If he isn’t able to, does it make any sense to expect it of him?’ Irrespective of her answer, it isn’t really relevant, as the only object is to make her aware of what exactly she is saying. Is her conviction about her husband’s inability valid? Or is it a question of her husband’s motivation, a question of not wanting to rather than not being able to?

So what are the Socratic tools you may use? A literal reflection can, just like a Socratic question, have awareness as goal. In the above example you may repeat the words ‘isn’t capable’). You could use some variations on the theme by adding an interpretation (or reading) and posing this as a statement, making this a reflection of meaning. For example, by saying: ‘So he doesn’t want to give you what you want’. She did not literally say this, which is why it isn’t a literal reflection, it is more a kind of leading paraphrase. The difference between this and a leading question is that you make this suggestion fully aware of the fact that you are doing it. Your suggestion isn’t a truth requiring arguments when the other refutes it, merely a tool to make something clear.

This kind of interpretation can be neutral, but may also be exaggerated. For example, the man who states he went to the bar without thinking about it, he simply seemed to arrive there. You might say: ‘You didn’t think anything at all’. You exaggerate the sentiment thinking ‘nothing about it’, turning it into ‘not thinking at all’, something most people would see as impossible. You could also choose to use understatement, which is similar to exaggeration but at the other extreme. Two other Socratic techniques you may use are the double-sided interpretation (‘on the one hand … on the other hand …’) and drawing conclusions: ‘The urge has you under its control, you are powerless against it’. To summarize, the various Socratic techniques are:

  • Socratic question: The other is challenged via a question to think whether things really are as they think they are
  • Literal reflection: A word or several words spoken by the other are literally repeated, making them aware of what they are exactly saying and which underlying convictions they hold
  • Reflection of emotion: By making an observation about which emotions the other is experiencing, you implicitly ask them to think about what a particular thing does with them
  • Interpretation or reflection of meaning: You interpret or read something into what the other is saying and postulate this, thereby inviting them to react to its validity
  • Many-sided interpretation: You interpret the several sides of the story that seem to be in conflict with one another
  • Exaggeration: You interpret what the other says, but exaggerate this, implicitly inviting them to respond regarding the validity of the exaggeration
  • Understatement: You interpret what the other says, but understate this, implicitly inviting them to respond regarding the validity of the understatement
  • Observation: The psychosocial worker makes an observation regarding inconsistencies in the client’s story
  • Conclusion: You draw a conclusion out of the other’s story and offer them this as a hypothesis

Some of the basic listening techniques in the right context therefore also have a Socratic function.

In summary: Confrontation is an essential skill to help others become aware of what exactly they are saying, thinking and doing, and reveal what their underlying convictions are on matters, often those which have a negative influence on them. Confrontation in any form works best when bedded in respect for the other. There are several ways in which to confront others, which may roughly be divided into a direct and an indirect manner. The indirect way is the preferred route, and the Socratic dialogue is its principal tool. This strategy sets the other thinking, whereby they come to insight by themselves.

Previous post mentioned: Reflection, reflective listening and some other terms.

Excerpted and edited from: Van Alphen, M.F. (2016). Observational Listening – The (Missing) Link between Emotion and Communication. Bloomington: Authorhouse UK.

Dutch book on Observational Listening: Van Alphen, M.F. (2015). Psychosociale gespreksvoering – observatief luisteren in de hulpverlening. Amsterdam: Boom.

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