Ask any Cognitive Behaviour therapist do they use Socratic Dialogue as one of their techniques and they will all say “yes”. Move to a clarifying question such as what do you understand Socratic Questioning to be and the waters become murky very fast. This technique appears to be one of the most difficult ideas to learn in CBT partly because everybody suggests using it but very people can clarify exactly what the technique is. The technique has been promoted by therapists from Adler and Winnicott through to Padesky and Beck.
For many therapists any type of open questioning gets called Socratic Dialogue. Maybe it sounds better saying I engaged in Socratic dialogue with the client compared to I questioned them about themselves for an hour.
Finding an agreed upon definition of Socratic questioning in psychotherapy or even within Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is next to impossible and it is pretty clear that Socrates has been hijacked as a brand name for all sorts of questioning techniques. Tim Carey and Richard Mullan in their paper: What is Socratic Questioning (no free access)are clearly totally gobsmacked by the lack of definition and outright contradiction surround this concept in psychotherapy. The range of conflicting definitions is quite remarkable and as Carey and Mullan remark somewhat ironically, Socrates often used his dialogue as way of reaching a clear definition.
Despite the stated importance of the Socratic Method for psychotherapy (A. T. Beck et al., 1993; J. S. Beck, 1995), clarity regarding this procedure is chimeric. Someone wishing to learn Socratic questioning could not discern from the literature what the procedure was, when it should be used, how it should be used, or what it should be used for. Indeed, a question as seemingly banal as the title of this article—“What Is Socratic Questioning?”—cannot be answered from existing descriptions. It seems that the term “Socratic method” can refer to almost anything at all. The discrepancy in the section describing the purpose of Socratic questioning is instructive. If Socratic questioning is concerned with changing minds, then a technique designed not to change clients’ minds could not legitimately be called Socratic questioning. It would seem inherently underhand and deceptive to advocate a process of self-discovery if it was the case that predetermined “discovery” was on the agenda. Currently, however, Socratic terms are used to refer to both changing minds and not changing minds.
Should one have the end point of the inquiry process in one’s mind or should it be an open ended go anywhere inquiry. Padesky in her paper: Socratic Questioning: Changing Minds or Guiding Discovery, for example would argue that using guided discovery should be utilised not to change a client’s mind but to allow the client to explore and reflect on their thoughts and behaviours. However even a brief reading of the old man himself indicates that Socrates had a pretty good idea where he was going on when he started out on his dialogue and his job was to make others come around to his way of thinking. There appears to be considerable debate about the degree to which one should have an end position in mind when one is using this technique.
Carey and Mullan remain delightfully confused to the very end of their paper concluding that:
The Socratic-questioning literature, therefore, is plagued by the bothersome juxtaposition of two quite different approaches. The divergence seems to be in how psychotherapeutic change is pursued. In one approach, the therapist is responsible for determining what the result of the change will be. In the other approach, the client is responsible for conjuring the change. We are not sure whether one of these approaches is the Socratic method or if neither of them is. We are convinced that both of them cannot be. Also, we are not suggesting that one approach is more worthy than another. We are simply proposing that at least one approach is not Socratic questioning. A rose by any other name is still a rose, but a daisy is not a rose no matter how fervently and frequently we say it is.
This article is the result of our attempt to understand one psychotherapy technique a little better. Along the way, we discovered that the path was strewn with imprecision and contradictions. We sought clarity about an important psychotherapy procedure; we found a muddle. Our investigation of the literature has raised more questions for us than it has answered. Questions about the Socratic method have generated for us even more questions about psychotherapy in general. Does the therapist know the solution to the client’s problems? What do clients learn when they learn to solve their problems? How might clients most efficiently be helped?
Analysing this paper more closely it seems to me the Carey and Mullan confuse the technique and purpose of the technique to some degree but nonetheless the confusion remains as the technique lacks clarity in application as well as being used for different purposes.
Part II looks at trying to provide some clarity in the application to this technique.