Socrates Tells Us How to Think

Known to have lived before the Christ Era, Socrates was a Greek Philosopher who has had a huge impact on philosophy. Like many great thinkers, Socrates was controversial and perhaps ahead of his times. He was also ridiculed in many plays that were written in that age. While Socrates did not write much on his own, his supporters included known names like Plato and Xenophon have done him justice. Socrates’ philosophies were best known for being argumentative and appealed to the cognitive aspect of the brain.

One of the aspects of this philosopher that caught my fancy is something called ‘Socrates Questions’. These are a set of questions that can be used to mold your thought process in a certain manner and lead to logical thinking. As per Wikipedia, these questions can be ‘used to pursue thought in many directions and for many purposes, including: to explore complex ideas, to get to the truth of things, to open up issues and problems, to uncover assumptions, to analyze concepts, to distinguish what we know from what we do not know, to follow out logical consequences of thought or to control discussions’.

Basically, Socrates teaches us how to get deeper and deeper into our minds by asking the right kinds of questions in a systematic and disciplined manner. They teach us how to think critically and therefore become more objective in our perceptions.

Via Flickr/Kenny Stoltz

Uses of Socrates Questioning

Pedagogy – Socrates questions have been used in teaching. They are primarily a guide to help teachers understand the assumptions that students are making in their statements, to help them look at facts and evidence that lead to making those statements and to encourage alternate viewpoints.

Psychology – The same questions have been converted into a tool used in psychotherapy. It helps in cognitive restructuring, a process in which one aims to change the thought process of an individual after identifying irrational behaviors caused by assumptions and core beliefs.

Personal Growth – Socrates questions are a great tool to use when you are thinking about almost anything. If practiced often, they can become a central part of the way you think and can therefore free you from biases, prejudices, misunderstandings and more. They also help you unravel a lot of mysteries in your own head too.

The Socrates Question

The actual Socrates questions that you can use yourself are:

  1. Revealing Issue – What are the facts that support your thought?
  2. Reasonable Alternatives – Are there other reasons why this may have happened?
  3. Potential Consequences – If your thought is true, what is the best scenario? What is the worst scenario?
  4. Evaluating Consequences – What happens if you continue to hold on to this belief? What can happen if you let go of this belief?
  5. Distancing – Imagine there is a friend in the same situation who feel the same way, what would you recommend to them?

A Socrates Questioning Example

Via Flickr/Charll White

Socrates questioning can help with anything you want to evaluate for yourself. It can start with a thought that comes into your head that you feel is true. For example, let’s say that you think that you are going to get fired from your job because you made a mistake. This is what the psychologists call an automatic thought. So, we will try and use the Socrates method on this.

Q: Why do you believe you are going to get fired?

A: The boss will find out about the mistake. He has already called me in to discuss something. It is probably the mistake I made and that’s why I feel I will get fired.

Q: Is there any other alternate reason why your boss many have called you?

A: I don’t think so! I think it he called me to fire me for the mistake. But it is possible that there some announcement he needs to make. He could probably just want to chat up about the new employee who is coming into my department.

Q: If your thought that he will fire you is true, what is the best scenario that can happen?

A: I will probably leave and do something on my own. I may be able to start something of my own and get the courage to start that new company I always dreamed to start but never could.

Q: What is the worst thing that can happen if your thought of getting fired is true?

A: I will lose my job and not be able to find another one or start a new company. I will get broke in a few months and may have to live on dole.

Q: What can happen if you continue believing that you will be fired?

A: Every time my boss calls me, I continue to have palpitations and am all sweaty. If this continues, I will surely have a heart attack. I also am not able to give in my best when I am so worried and tense. I stammer and stutter every time we have a meeting.

Q: What can happen if you stop thinking that you will get fired?

A: When I do get fired, then it will come as a shock me and I may not be prepared.

Q: So, imagine you have a friend who is in your situation, what would you tell him?

A: Chill dude! Everyone makes mistakes and you will not get fired for a small mistake that you may have done. Also, you have to believe in yourself to be able to give your best to the organization you work for.

Another Socrates Questioning Example

Via Flickr/Nell Moralee

Socrates questions can be applied in personal situations as well. Take for example a thought that comes in your head – She is asking me to come to the movies because she wants a favor from me.

Why do you believe so? Maybe because people have tried to get favors from you in the past after trying to be nice.

But are there alternate reasons for her to ask you out for a movie? Maybe she really enjoyed your company and wants to spend more time with you. Maybe she has heard that you like watching movies and she does too. Maybe she is just looking for some company.

What is the best that can happen if your thought is true? She may ask you for the favor, at a later date. And you may be able to help her. Your association may develop into a good friendship.

What is the worst that can happen if she is asking you to the movies for the favor? She may ask you and you may not be able to decline the favor and get caught this one time.

What happens if you continue believing she wants a favor back? You may decline the offer for the movies and never get to know her any better. She will probably give up and not invite you out any more.

What can happen if you give up this thought? You would feel relaxed about meeting people and make new friends than you have done in the past.

What would you tell a friend if she was worrying about this? It’s not worth it to worry about such things. Opening up to people is important if you want to create and nurture relationships. So, drop your guard and see what happens rather than assuming it.

Knowing about these questions is a great way to understand your own emotions, prejudices, and fears. Subjecting your thoughts to these questions can get you out of troublesome thoughts and negativity too.

The next time you have an automatic thought that pops up in your head, use these and see where you get. Answer honestly!

PS: While writing this I did feel that there is one corollary to subjecting automatic thoughts to logical and systematic Socrates questions. They seem to knock down any ‘gut’ that you may have sometimes. I would certainly not like to undermine ‘gut feel’. They can be eerily right at times!


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