Socratic questioning is a method of teaching by asking thoughtful questions. A teacher who uses this technique asks questions from a place of genuine curiosity, encouraging the student to think deeply about their responses. Socratic questioning is especially helpful when examining complex ideas and challenging assumptions.
In psychotherapy, clinicians use Socratic questioning to help their clients examine the evidence and logic behind their beliefs. This examination encourages clients to identify and challenge thoughts that are irrational or harmful.
Socratic questioning is a general technique that may be used in many forms of psychotherapy. In this guide we focus on its use in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). However, many of the skills are transferrable to other therapeutic approaches.
Identify a Thought to Target
During therapy, many different distressing or maladaptive thoughts may come to the surface. To use Socratic questioning effectively, it’s important to focus on one thought at a time, rather than trying to address several thoughts at once.
To identify an important thought, look for changes in affect, or ask your client what thought is most important to them.
Notice Changes in Affect
Sudden changes in facial expression, body language, or tone of voice may signal an important thought. When you notice a change in affect, pause the conversation and dig deeper to learn what triggered the change.
Therapist: I just noticed a sudden change in your demeanor. A moment ago, you had a big smile on your face. But then, when I asked about school, your face clouded over, and you looked really upset. What thought was going through your mind in that moment?
Instead of guessing which thought is most important, or assuming you know... just ask! It may help to offer a list of thoughts your client has shared, and encourage them to choose one.
Therapist: We’ve talked about how your depression leads to thoughts such as “I’m worthless,” and “I’ll never make it as a teacher.” What thought would you say is most distressing for you?
Explore the Evidence for the Thought
Before attempting to challenge a thought, it’s important to understand your client’s point of view. How strongly held is their thought? What experiences do they view as evidence? During exploration, you will focus on showing empathy and listening with an open mind.
- What experiences is this thought based on?
- What are the facts that support your thought?
- What is the strongest evidence to support this thought?
- Is this thought based on something someone said to you?
- How long have you believed this?
- How strongly do you believe this thought is true?
After exploring the evidence for a maladaptive thought, the next step is to challenge it.
Challenge the Thought
Using Socratic questions, you will encourage your client to view their thought objectively. This is achieved by examining the evidence for a belief, considering alternate explanations, and identifying unfounded assumptions.
As a clinician, your goal continues to be understanding. However, you may begin asking questions that encourage your client to examine their evidence more critically or take new perspectives. Whenever your client presents evidence for their thought, use Socratic questioning to delve deeper. Are cognitive distortions influencing this evidence? Is this evidence based on facts that most people would agree with?
In some cases, your client will present strong evidence, and you will better understand their perspective. In other cases, your client may find shortcomings in their evidence, and begin to take a new perspective themselves.
Use the list below to guide your questioning.
- ...uses open-ended questions or questions that encourage elaboration.
- ...comes from a place of mutual curiosity and exploration.
- ...allows the client to see their situation from a different point of view.
- ...encourages the client to reassess unfounded assumptions that were used as evidence.
- ...raises new evidence that may contradict a thought.
Effective Socratic Questioning...
- Are there times when you see things in a more positive light?
- Could there be other interpretations of the evidence you presented?
- Can you think of new evidence that would lead to a different thought?
- Was there a period where you did not hold this belief?
- Are you basing your thought on feelings, rather than facts?
- If your best friend were in the same situation, what would you say to them?
- Are you seeing things in black-and-white? If you try to look at your thought in a more balanced way, how does it change?
- Are you making any assumptions about the thoughts and feelings of other people?
Example Prompts for Socratic Questioning
Remember that the thought you are exploring is likely to be deeply ingrained in how your client sees themselves or the world. It’s normal for Socratic questioning to be a gradual process.
After successfully challenging a thought, the next step is to create a new, rational, and adaptive thought to take its place.
Adopt a New Thought
As old evidence is examined and challenged, a new thought will begin to form. The goal during this stage is to make sure the new thought is adaptive and rational. This is achieved by reviewing the valid evidence and synthesizing it into a few sentences.
Part 1: Summarize the Evidence
Before adopting a new thought, it is helpful to summarize the evidence discussed up to this point. During this process, you and the client should review all the evidence—not just evidence that’s positive. The goal is to develop an accurate and honest representation of the facts, rather than something that is all good or bad. Adopting a new belief that is honest and accurate will lead to a thought that is durable. It will stand up to new evidence, rather than being undermined by future experiences.
Before moving on, the client should be fully on-board with the new belief, and able to summarize the information in their own words.
Part 2: Synthesize the Evidence
Once the evidence has been summarized, the next step is boiling it down to a single thought. The new thought should be rational, truthful, and no more than a few sentences long. Your client must be in full agreement with the new thought, and it should replace the old maladaptive thought.
|Maladaptive Thought||New Thought|
|“I’m a bad mom.”||“Like any mother, I’ve made mistakes... but I love and support my kids as best I can.”|
|“I’ll never make it as a teacher.”||“I’m still new and have a lot to learn as a teacher. But I’ve done other difficult things, and I can do this too.”|
|“People don’t like spending time with me because I’m awkward.”||“I feel way more awkward than I actually am. I might not be the most popular, but I have several good friends.”|
Even after completing Socratic questioning, there’s still work to be done. Your client may find that the old maladaptive thought still sneaks in from time-to-time. Or, the new adaptive thought might require further reinforcement, such as through behavioral experiments or other strategies.
Some tools that can be useful following Socratic questioning include:
To learn more about Socratic questioning, check out this very useful resource:
1. Clark, G. I., & Egan, S. J. (2018). Clarifying the role of the Socratic method in CBT: a survey of expert opinion. International Journal of Cognitive Therapy, 11(2), 184-199.
2. Waltman, S. H., Codd III, R. T., McFarr, L. M., & Moore, B. A. (2020). Socratic Questioning for Therapists and Counselors: Learn How to Think and Intervene Like a Cognitive Behavior Therapist. Routledge.