Socratic questioning in therapy

We don’t tell people what to think, or say what they’re thinking is wrong. That’s the magic of therapy. We use an intervention known as Socratic questioning, instead. Here’s an example…

Never say never?

Have you ever thought about the word never? It can be useful in forming beliefs such as, I’ll never cheat on my wife or I’ll never eat sewer rats. It helps form the rules we live by. The old saying, “Never say never,” isn’t true, after all. It prevents divorce and bubonic plague.

There are other uses of never that stunt our growth like, I’ll never be good enough or I’ll never find a job. Unfortunately, self-defeating instances of never aren’t easy to fix because we often wholeheartedly believe the lies we tell ourselves.

The good news: We’ve had great success at slaying these self-defeating, toxic beliefs in therapy.

Socratic questioning in therapy

Reforming our beliefs to more accurately reflect the truth is what therapy does best. We do this with an intervention known as Socratic questioning. For example, I’ll start by confronting someone’s self-defeating use of never directly, like so…

“You’ll never be good enough?” I ask.

“Yes, that’s right,” she simply agrees.

In the instance above, she’s not challenging her own belief; she’s embracing it. She agrees with I’ll never be good enough, hook, line, and sinker. Most of us let our faulty beliefs go unopposed, just like she’s doing. We don’t ask ourselves important questions. That’s where therapy comes in handy.

I’ll continue the conversation with:

  • What do you mean by good?
  • What’s the standard? What’s enough?
  • Who decides? Good enough for who?
  • Never, meaning you’re stuck this way?

Provided this line of questioning, her belief begins to fall apart. There’s no logic to it. With every question I ask, the claim that she’ll never be good enough vanishes into thin air, much like a vampire when exposed to the light of day.

Don’t argue or debate

I don’t argue with her, or try to convince her that she is good enough. I simply challenge her belief with sound questioning, genuinely wanting to understand what she means. As it stands, her belief, I’ll never be good enough, is vague. The questions above help me understand, and help her get more specific about what she’s saying to herself.

In my experience, this simple cognitive intervention, known as Socratic questioning, can work wonders on someone’s mental health. She’s believed she wasn’t good enough her entire life. She’s in her late 60s and nobody has ever challenged her quite like me.

People have told her, “You are enough!”

Thousands of people have said that to her, but it never worked. As a matter of fact, it only strengthened the belief that she wasn’t. Most people aren’t trained in Socratic questioning. They don’t know how to respond to someone else’s suffering quite like we do, as therapists.

When she stopped believing she wasn’t good enough, her depression went into remission. Her PHQ-9 score improved by 76% over the course of six sessions, which is a remarkable recovery.

Socratic questioning is magic

There is something magical about the words we murmur in our heart of hearts. Helping people correct their unconscious, self-defeating beliefs is something I love to do. Instead of telling someone what to believe, or telling them they’re wrong, I simply ask questions.

Here’s a list of common beliefs we come across daily:

  • There’s no point
  • I’m worthless
  • I’m a loser
  • I’m a failure
  • I hate my life
  • Nobody likes me
  • I don’t matter
  • Nobody cares

If you’ve ever thought this way about yourself, then please consider talking about it with your therapist. We’ll treat you with dignity and respect; we only want to understand.

Words have power and when we learn to speak the truth more clearly, so do we.