Socratic Questioning

Socratic questioning is the work-horse of logotherapy. I want to bring your attention a few selections from ebook Prism of Meaning by Maria Marshall that particularly struck me.

“Naïve questioning is a form of questioning in the dialogue which is used when patients are filled with anxieties, insecurities, and sometimes with self-pity, or they are influenced by someone else’s ideas, to the point that they lose their independent thinking. The therapist, by the way of asking naive questions, leads patients to see that their attitudes, or adopted way of thinking, is unhealthy, or even dangerous, and leads them to question their original stand, and clarify where they really think.

This is done by the therapist seemingly accepting the patients’ attitude, and temporarily placing themselves in the patients’ frame of reference. The questions are formulated so that patients feel seemingly affirmed in their unhealthy attitudes, which may be surprising to them. Then, the therapist follows with counter-questions, which may make patients feel confused, so that they have to clarify to themselves where they stand with respect to their “stuck” attitude.” (Lukas, Meaning in Suffering, p. 98 – cited in Prism of meaning p. 89)

In the second piece, Dr. Paul Welter describes the need for “two-legged” questions: “Socratic questions need to be asked in a way that stretches the thinking of the client. This requires careful listening to find the circumference of the client’s thought. If the question is entirely within the circumference, it will not have a stretching quality. If it is totally outside of the client’s thought, he or she will not be able to connect with it. The question needs to stand with one leg firmly in the client’s way of looking at the world, and the other in the new territory.” (Counseling and the Search for Meaning, Paul Welter, pp. 69-70 – cited in Prism of Meaning p. 96)

I am particularly interested in Dr. Welter’s suggestions because when I attended the logotherapy conference in Dallas I was impressed by his skill and impressed with his presence as a person, and I only wanted to soak up everything he had to say.

In both the quote by Lukas and the quote by Welter, we’re entering into the mind of the client to see the world as he or she sees it and reflect what that perspective is. The half, or leg that’s in the person’s frame of reference might be an unhealthy attitude a will to meaning that’s only dimly twinkling or a value they care about.

Logotherapy is more than just reflection of what is there. We’re interested in reflecting on the meaning of what’s here now and the meaning that’s there waiting in the future. We’re challenging the person to change something in his attitude or behavior that would allow him to find that meaning.

The idea of challenging the client can itself be challenging for the therapist. We want to be empathetic and understanding of their plight.

We need to understand that our questioning is in effect challenging the person to question him or her self. We are not challenging them to “think the way I think.”

A child does not question himself. He either does what he’s used to doing or internalizes what others are telling him.

A client is very much like a child. He or she may continue to have an old image of self that is not doing him or her any good. We need to be alert to whether the client is playing out that poor image of self in his relationship with us.

In naive questioning we are at first simply reflecting back the person’s perspective with the aim that he will question his own perspective. This is the uniquely human capacity we’re evoking. Whatever the conclusion, the process of questioning his own perspective is itself a sign of emotional and spiritual growth.

In the more common form of Socratic dialogue the person is questioning himself to find out what his perspective actually is.

As Prism of Meaning sums up: “The questions aim to facilitate: a) self-discovery, b) choice, c) uniqueness, d) responsibility, e) self-transcendence and f) clarify needs and values.”

An example of facilitating choice is a case of someone who said she felt she should be responsible about a certain issue but was not doing it. The line of questioning would be from the standpoint that she wants to be responsible and the therapist will help her think about what her area of freedom is to make that happen. The responsibility is hers and not something we’re putting on her. There’s no question in our mind that she has some area of freedom within which she can make a choice. We’re only helping her to find out what that area of freedom is, that would enable her to be responsible in the way she herself says she wants to be. And not letting up until she comes up with an answer.

“The Socratic Dialogue is powerful because it creates an image, or a key sentence, which stays with patients that they can think about even after they have left the office. Often, the images, metaphors and wisdom that are gained represent a paradigm shift, a new way of seeing the self, and the world, which occurs once the defenses (such as rationalization) are no longer held.” (Prism of Meaning p. 97)

From personal experience I can tell you that this is true. After giving birth to my second child I went to an educational talk given by one of the hospital nurses (Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston) to the new mothers. I went up to her and said I was anxious about how it would go for me because I had had a hard time with the nursing with my first one. She said back to me: “For whatever reason would you think it will be the same this time as it was last time?” She must have studied logotherapy or else she was one of those “natural born” logotherapists.

Her question struck me like a thunderbolt. It shocked me into an instantaneous paradigm shift. Of course, I thought. For whatever reason should it be the same just because of how it was before? This was all I needed. This kind of question can apply to so many things in life…

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