Socratic Method…Converting Smart Questions Into Effective Communications

So, what can a guy who has been dead for nearly 2,500 years teach us? For starters, let’s ask a Socratic-style question: After hundreds of millions of dollars in communications being spent annually, are your stakeholders listening? If not, why not?

This leads to the deeper question: What is communications? Here’s a harsh reality…communications is not about writing; not about speaking; not about old media or new media. Communications at its core is about getting people (audiences, stakeholders, etc.) to listen.

There is a story that talks about two men walking down the street. One says to the other. “Did you hear that?” The second said, “No, what are you talking about?” His companion says, “There are crickets in the grass.” They walk a little farther and the first guy drops some change from his pocket on the ground. The second immediately stops, looks around and picks up the change.

The reality of communications…we hear what we are listening for.

Everyone either hears or listens. In fact, recent research suggests that as much as 92% of our population hears and only 8% actually listen. Now you understand why public relations strategies often fail to meet their objectives…they fail to engage their targets and convert them from hearing to listening.

How does hearing (vs. listening) affect your audiences’ behavior? Hearing is disengaged; hearing often results in little or no movement; hearing often fails to convince; and hearing often fails to build trust.

So, how do you bridge a hearing audience to an actively listening audience?

Three strategies you can use immediately:

First ask, “What’s important to those we’re talking to?” It means putting on their shoes to understand what they need, what they’re feeling, what are the factors that will win their hearts. Most people make decisions from their heart, not their heads, so in creating effective communications ask this fundamental question.

Second, ask, “How do I move from seller to getting my audience to buy?” Answer, again: Put on their shoes. (This means finding out what they’re feeling, what they need…yes, formal and informal, qualitative vs. quantitative research.)

Third, learn how to ask brilliant questions. The smartest person in the room is the one with the best questions, not the best answer. Questions drive the process and their often neutral. As Socrates said, “Why do I ask so many questions? One thing only I know, and that is, that I know nothing without questions”…and neither do many others in the room.

Why else are questions so powerful to convert an audience from hearing to listening? Questions go to what part of us?

That’s right, the ego. No one’s ego is going to let a question go unanswered. So now it becomes more transparent why questions are so very powerful…they cause an audience to listen. What can we take away from this? Every presentation, every communication, every conversation…starts with a question. Now the audience is listening…tell them what they need to listen to in order to drive their behavior.

So, what are some “brilliant” questions? I’m not sure they’re brilliant, but these questions always work:

  1. What is the 360 degree solution? (In other words, it forces the group to look at who really needs to be educated and what are their individual and collective needs.)

  2. What are the barriers to success? (Cold water is refreshing, stimulating and provides clear-eyed clarity.)

  3. What are the language needs of those affected? (How do you communicate outside-in versus inside-out? Remember, it’s not what you say it is…it’s what they say it is.)

  4. What’s our purpose?

  5. What is the future solution we can implement today?

  6. What’s good about this? What’s not perfect about it yet?

In conclusion, let me leave you with five fundamental principles for effective questioning:

  • Remember…“One who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; one who doesn’t ask a question remains a fool forever.”
  • Questions move from problem-solving to creating solutions…framing matters.
  • Smart questions neutralize egos
  • All advice, solutions or insights can be expressed in a question so that everyone learns concurrently.
  • Pose options as questions

In the end, listening and questioning create trust. We are first and foremost in the trust business. Trust changes everything. As Socrates would say, “Why?” Because trust is the only thing that means everything.

Alan Hilburg is president of Hilburg Associates. He can be reached at


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  • Trey Sparks

    Great insights…never heard it expressed this thoughtfully.

  • Chris Biddle


    Thanks for the primer on the Socratic method. Much appreciated.