My Product Management Toolkit (19): Socratic Questioning

One of the first things that I learned when I started out in product management was the importance of asking why, using the “5 Whys” to truly understand a problem or a situation:

  1. Why? — The battery is dead. (First why)
  2. Why? — The alternator is not functioning. (Second why)
  3. Why? — The alternator belt has broken. (Third why)
  4. Why? — The alternator belt was well beyond its useful service life and not replaced. (Fourth why)
  5. Why? — The vehicle was not maintained according to the recommended service schedule. (Fifth why, a root cause)

I felt, however, that the “5 Whys” technique only got me to a certain point, especially in situations where I wanted other people to get to the solution or the root of a problem by themselves.

I then learned about Socratic questioning, which is a disciplined approached to questioning and can be used to solve problems or explore complex ideas. Before I go into the specifics of Socratic questioning, I want to explain why I was so attracted by this systematic approach to questioning:

  • Supports learning — Whenever other people ask me Socratic type questions, I always feel that I’m learning loads — purely from going through the process of thinking. Also, I’ve noticed how my thoughts and decisions are more likely to stick if I’ve gone through a process of Socratic questioning.
  • True understanding — Even though it must drive some of my colleagues nuts at times, answering a question with a question does in my experience lead to a much more thorough understanding of the problem one is looking to solve.
  • Stay curious — Asking questions really helps keeping my mind sharp 🙂 It might sometimes be easier to answer a question straight away, but there’s a risk of ‘leaving questions or issues on the table’ when you’re not probing.

These are the types of Socratic questions to consider:

Questions for clarification:

  • Why do you say that?
  • How does this relate to our discussion or the problem that we’re trying to solve?

These types of questions are meant to make sure that people are talking about the same thing or are looking at the same problem to solve.

Questions that probe assumptions:

  • Why do you think that?
  • What could we assume instead and why?
  • How can you verify or disprove that assumption?

My favourite questions … It’s all about unearthing underlying assumptions and getting people to think their assumptions through, or at least acknowledge that they are making assumptions.

Questions that probe reasons and evidence:

  • What would be an example?
  • What would success look like and why?
  • Why is this a better option than that one (and why)?
  • What is this similar to?
  • What do you think causes this to happen (and why)?

Questions like these are very useful when you’re trying to understand where the other person is coming from and why. From experience, questions that probe reasons and evidence can be very powerful when looking to validate an idea or solution; it’s almost liking take a step back before delving into a solution.

Questions about viewpoints and perspectives:

  • What would be an alternative (and why)?
  • If you were to play devil’s advocate, how and why would you challenge this view?
  • What is another way to look at it (and why)?
  • Could you explain why it’s necessary or beneficial, and who benefits (and why)?
  • What are the strengths and weakness of this idea?
  • How are this idea and that idea similar? Why (not)?

One of the things I’ve learned is to spend more time understanding another person’s viewpoint or fully grasp the ‘why’ behind someone’s idea. Similar to the types of questions in the previous section. Asking questions about the other person’s perspective can help smooth conversations and collaboration since you are likely to have a much better understanding of the other person’s thinking.

Questions that probe implications and consequences:

  • What generalisations can you make?
  • What are the consequences of that assumption (and why)?
  • What are you implying? What are you not taking into consideration (and why)?
  • How does this affect that?
  • How does this tie into what we learned before?

Having previously made the mistake of not thinking things through properly, I always ask questions to encourage people to work out the possible consequences of a particular solution or approach. I’ve found that doing this in a more Socratic fashion helps the other person to truly realise and consider the outcomes of their approach.

Questions about the question:

  • What was the point of this question?
  • Why do you think I asked this question?
  • What does this mean?
  • How does this question apply to the problem you’re trying to solve?

These types of questions help you to reflect on the process of Socratic questioning. What’s the point of the questioning!? Why did I ask these questions? What did we learn (and why)?

Main learning point: I did a quick count and saw that the word “why” appears 15 times in this piece, not including the “5 Whys” technique. For me, Socratic questioning — in its simplest form begins and ends with that one word. Why.

Related links for further learning:


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