If you’re relying solely upon meds for depression relief, you’re cheating yourself. There are a host of great tools that can challenge your mood misery. One of them is Socratic questioning.

Socratic questioning is used as a cognitive restructuring technique to uncover, challenge, and negate the beliefs, assumptions, and supposed evidence – our thought patterns – that cause distress.

Greek philosopher Socrates was one smart and sensible man. I mean, you must have something going for you if you’re Plato’s teacher.

And it’s astounding that he influences reasoning and behavior 2,400 years after his heyday.

Intro to Socratic questioning

One of Socrates’ major contributions to the modern world is Socratic questioning, also referred to as Socratic dialogue or Socratic maieutics.

Not only is maieutics a $500 word, its meaning is important to our discussion.

Maieutics is the method Socrates used to elicit knowledge in a person’s mind by interrogation and insistence on logical reasoning. Maieutic is Greek for midwifery. And he chose the term because he likened his method to birthing – and his mother just happened to be a midwife.

Socratic questioning (SQ) can be utilized in a variety of settings. We’re going to examine it within the realm of psychology, specifically depression.

I might add that SQ can be effective in treating anxiety.

Socratic questioning research

I bumped into some research from 2015 that remains relevant. A team at The Ohio State University discovered that when therapists use SQ in their cognitive therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy work with depressed clients, substantial symptom improvement is realized.

“Therapist Use of Socratic Questioning Predicts Session-to-Session Symptom Change in Cognitive Therapy for Depression” appeared in the journal Behaviour Research and Therapy.

Now, we’re going to get into the nuts and bolts of SQ in a bit, but for now, let’s just say it’s about a series of guided questions in which the therapist challenges a client to consider new perspectives on themselves and their place in the world.

From the study authors

Justin Braun…

People with depression can get stuck in a negative way of thinking. Socratic questioning helps patients examine the validity of their negative thoughts and gain a broader, more realistic perspective.

Daniel Strunk…

We found that Socratic questioning was predictive of symptom improvements above and beyond the therapeutic relationship – the variable that has been most examined in previous studies.

Let’s get into the work…

Study details

Here’s how the study went down. Fifty-five participants took part in a 16 week course of cognitive therapy for depression.

When it was all said and done, the team analyzed video recordings of the first three sessions for each participant and estimated how often the therapist used SQ techniques.

And go figure, the sessions in which more SQ was used generated a greater improvement in pre-measured depressive symptoms.

Perhaps even more meaningful, it was obvious to the team that the participants were learning the process of asking themselves questions. And they were becoming aware, and skeptical, of their negative thoughts.

For all of us, the more that occurs, the more we can anticipate symptom improvement.

And it’s important to discipline ourselves to use SQ to confront and reason through our negative thoughts. When we do, we’ll find we’ve overlooked information that contradicts the garbage we believe to be true.

What is Socratic questioning?

Okay, the moment we’ve been waiting for. What the heck is Socratic questioning?

In short, it’s a disciplined style of questioning used to explore complex ideas, get to the truth of the matter, open up issues and problems, uncover assumptions, analyze concepts, distinguish what we know from what we don’t, and follow out logical implications of thought.

How does SQ differ from regular questioning? It’s systematic, disciplined, deep, and typically emphasizes fundamental concepts, principles, theories, issues, or problems.

Socratic questioning in therapy

“Okay, what evidence supports me being a loser and what evidence supports I’m not?”

Though it can be used in several therapies, we’re going to discuss SQ within the context of cognitive therapy – just like the study.

Real quick, cognitive therapy is based on the premise that our problems may have started in the past, but they’re maintained by things in the present.

So it’s about identifying current thought patterns that result in negative moods and counterproductive behavior.

Okay, SQ is used as a cognitive restructuring technique to uncover, challenge, and negate the beliefs, assumptions, and supposed evidence – our thought patterns – that cause distress. Cognitive distortions loom large here.

Socratic questioning progression

Now, there are numerous SQ models, and I encourage you to do some research. However, let’s keep it simple and take a look at the following SQ progression, with indicated questions…

  1. I’m the issue: “What evidence supports this idea? What evidence supports it isn’t true?”
  2. Conceiving reasonable alternatives: “What might be another explanation or point-of-view regarding the circumstances? What else could have made it happen?”
  3. Examining various potential consequences: “What are worst, best, bearable, and most realistic outcomes?”
  4. Evaluate those consequences: “What’s the effect of thinking or believing this? What could be the effect of no longer holding onto this belief – thinking differently?”
  5. Distancing: “Imagine a family member or friend has the same dilemma or views the circumstances as you do. What would you tell them?”

Do you see how SQ works?

Socratic self-questioning

In addition to a therapist asking the questions, we need to be asking them of ourselves.

Here’s a small collection of random SQ questions to try on for size…

  • Let me see if I understand, do I mean ____ or ____?
  • Do I understand correctly? I seem to be assuming ____.
  • Why would I make this assumption?
  • Is it always the case?
  • What could I assume instead?
  • Do I have any evidence for that?
  • How could I find out whether that’s true?
  • When I say ____, am I implying ____?
  • Would that for sure happen, or just maybe?
  • What would someone who disagrees say?
  • Is there an alternative way of perceiving this?

Do you think consistently asking yourself such questions would challenge your negative patterns of thought? I sure do.

Take care of biz

There’s not a thing wrong with relying upon meds for depression relief. Heck, I use an antidepressant. But believe me when I say there’s so much more to the relief and healing equation.

If you’re struggling with depression, I’m going to stick my neck out and say your negative thoughts are mega-contributors. How couldn’t they be?

So why not assertively address the obvious dilemma? And you can use Socratic questioning to take care of biz.

The study authors: Justin Braun, Daniel Strunk, Katherine Sasso, Andrew Cooper. If you’d like to read the full study: “Therapist Use of Socratic Questioning Predicts Session-to-Session Symptom Change in Cognitive Therapy for Depression”

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