My Use of the Socratic Method was Pissing People Off

I am a big believer in the Socratic method.  I want people to have the aha themselves, rather than me tell it to them.  But the way I was doing it was pissing people off. I’m actually ok with pissing people off, but it was also causing their thinking to shut down.  

What is the Socratic Method?  Credited to Socrates, it’s a technique of asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presumptions.  

One day, I was helping the kids in our local Robotics club with a computer program that wasn’t working. They were frustrated. I started asking questions, “what line is it failing on?”, “what is the value of the variable the first time through the loop?” and they were getting super annoyed and shouting ‘our logic is right, it’s just not working!’  They seemed to just want the answer. When another adult swooped in with the answer, they shot me venomous looks, as if to say “see that’s what we needed!” They also seemed to lose trust in me because I appeared not to know the answer. My son was nearby and he piped in “Oh yeah, my mom never gives answers.” My kids are trained. Yay me. But unfortunately I need to interact with people other than my kids, and my work does require me to shift people’s perspective.

Full disclosure, this whole scene; the pre-teen kids full of attitude, the swooping adult, that was the end of my volunteer work with that group.  If you are thinking “grow up”, you’re right but hey, I’m human. I welcome your help. What was I doing wrong? I welcome your input in the comments.  Here are my best guesses so far and experiments I’ve been trying.

I lacked authenticity.  I was asking them questions that I knew the answer to (I actually didn’t know but let’s pretend like I did).  When someone asks you a question they know the answer to it feels manipulative. I wanted them to think, but instead, it came across as cagey, like I was hiding the answer.

I may have helped if I simply stated, “I think I know what the issue is, but let’s work through it together.” instead of launching into my question.  Perhaps this would have set the stage.

Another option might have been, “I don’t give answers, but I’ll help you think it through if you like.”  I could have even outright said, “I can help you by asking a series of questions. Would you like me to do that?” and if they said, “no we just want the answer” that is fine.  

They may not have been ready.  Not everyone wants to think all the time.  Sometimes people just want the answer. Opening up their minds takes time and I wasn’t positioned at that moment to crack them open.  They were distracted, tired and they didn’t want to learn anymore. Getting a better sense of people’s openness might have helped me here.

They viewed me as a lion.  In neuroscience terms, when we feel threatened our limbic brain system takes over.  When that limbic system (also known as system 1) takes control, it blocks the prefrontal cortex (the thinking brain) from getting any messages.  From an evolutionary perspective, this is good because when a lion is chasing you, you don’t want to be distracted by thoughts about your calculus homework.  But when helping people learn and apply new ideas, you really don’t want them to see you as a lion.

In the past, I had spoken to folks at a client about better ways of working, and it felt threatening to them.  They couldn’t see how it fit into their world, and it seemed to threaten their very job. Would their job exist in this Agile world?  Would they be successful in this new way of working? Under the current reward system, they would be punished for this new way of working.  Would the reward system change?

I didn’t create safety.  Dennis Stevens’ recent work on change highlights safety as a key factor.  Were the kids feeling like their code might never work and I wasn’t helping?  What would have happened if I started by saying, “There is a logic problem. As a professional programmer, I have seen problems like this before and I solved them by systematically walking through the code in debug mode. Would you like me to show you how I work through these types of problems?”

It was a necessary part of the process.  Sometimes people need to shut down before they can open up.  I’ve had the experience where someone completely attacks my suggestion one day, and the next day comes back asking questions and considering the idea.

I didn’t set a boundary for the swooper.  When the swooper came over I was happy to get the pressure off and backed down.   Also, I wasn’t totally sure of the actual issue with the code. Maybe better to explain that I was trying to get them to think it through before he jumped in with the answer.

I also hadn't designed a good working agreement with the swooper.  We both had very different styles, and I was never quite comfortable in my role.  I was a “helper” and being a “helper” is hard because you are not sure what you are actually responsible for.

What do you think I could have done differently?  Let me know in the comments!