DHO is Mostly Confused

Rants from Devon H. O'Dell

Practicing Socratic Exercises Without Patronizing

At my QConSF talk, I got a really great question:

So when you were talking about the Socratic method, how do you engage in the Socratic method without sliding into a patronizing tone, if you know what I mean?

Off the top of my head, the answer I gave focused on fostering trust. But I think this is a really important question, and I ended up ruminating on it for some time afterwards. I don’t think this was the best answer, and I think it’s worth talking about some more.

Regardless of what Socrates actually believed about knowledge, the methodology he used to help educate others stays with us today because it’s useful and it works. Briefly, it is a methodology by which one or more people intending to learn are asked leading questions about a premise. The idea is that when the “right questions” are asked, the student is able to solve the problem without actually having been spoon-fed a solution. This is fantastic for the individual(s) learning, because they get a feeling of ownership of knowledge, and the new knowledge they own is solidly based on things they already understand.

The problem encoded in this question is that it is very easy to come across as patronizing in exercises like this. And the trick here is really in asking the right questions. Start from something that is plainly obvious, and your mentee feels patronized. Start from something that isn’t at all obvious, and you risk frustrating your mentee. Figuring out what questions to ask and how to ask them is hard. To engage in a successful Socratic exercise, we really have to get this right.

Difficulties of Socratic Dialogue

Consider an online forum, or any other medium where folks are temporally present, but may not have much context into who you are, your motivations, or your expertise. If someone raises a question and is immediately met with a question in response, this discussion is unlikely to be successful. Why should anybody entertain your question?

There are multiple reasons folks may be hostile, skeptical, or otherwise adverse in engaging in such a discussion. In a sort of context-free environment, you’re operating without credentials and it’s likely folks simply don’t know who you are. If you’re an authority on the subject, this is not necessarily obvious. The people in most need of help are going to be new to the subject. This by definition means they are likely unfamiliar with who the experts of a particular field actually are, and wouldn’t be able to recognize you as one anyway.

This can be exacerbated by the fact that we implicitly categorize people asking questions as fellow learners, rather than mentors. Socratic dialogue, as old as it is, isn’t a hugely popular form of teaching. So the technique remains unfamiliar to many. If I’ve asked a question, and I’m met with a question in response, it may feel natural for me to doubt whether this person is trying to help, or whether they’re in the same boat as I am. My primary motivator is gaining knowledge to solve my problem, not to help someone else who is stuck with possibly less information than I have. Even experienced folks are likely to be similarly conditioned.

Finally, in the age of the Internet, there’s plenty of misinformation and most folks are clued in to this. Especially in the area of programming languages and technology, moderately experienced folks tend to look out for blatantly incorrect information. People who are experienced may just be looking for a quick refresher as opposed to a long-winded discussion about what they already know. These folks may be more hostile towards engaging in a Socratic dialogue for this reason as well.

Building Trust

I think building and fostering trust is the first step we need to take when communicating with anybody in any form, but it especially holds here. When engaging in Socratic exercises, we can’t just start with asking questions. We have to have some lead-in by which we engage in the discussion. One frequent pitfall I’ve observed in practicing Socratic dialogues has been the lack of lead-in.

We can start with something like, “Hey, I think I can help you with your problem, would you mind me asking you a few questions about what you’ve found out first?” This solves nearly all of the difficulties mentioned in the previous section:

  • You’ve established yourself as an authority by stating you think you can help with the problem.
  • You’ve established your willingness to help with the problem, so it’s unlikely you will be misidentified as someone with a similar problem.
  • You’re setting up the individual to expect questions. This allows them to see your questions as a tool for their learning as opposed to a tool for you.
  • You’ve provided an opportunity for someone unwilling to engage in a Socratic exercise to reply with something like, “Hey, I appreciate that, I know what I’m doing, but I’m having a brain fart right now and I really just need the name of this function so I can look at the manpage.”

If the person responds positively, it’s time to engage in a Socratic dialogue. (Although, surprise surprise, this first question already started that process!) If they’re cautious, they’ve also a chance to ask you why you think you can help.

Some people only recognize “help” as being spoon-fed answers. It’s up to you whether you want to do this or not, but either engage or disengage. There’s little point in complaining about whether a person is learning in a “proper” fashion. In fact, doing so will discredit your authority and will engender distrust from the person aiming to learn. That’s antithetical to the goal here: to build trust.

If someone is on the fence, or really wants to be spoon-fed information, continue to build trust. “Ok, well it would help me to have all of the information about where you are so that I can provide you an accurate answer. You said the problem is X. How did you reach that conclusion?”

Stay calm and collected. Apologize if offense is taken and reassure none was intended. Your goal is to educate, and being a trusted person is going to reduce the likelihood people see you as an elitist or authority figure (and therefore more likely to take offense at your help), while increasing the likelihood you are a helpful peer. Which is really what you are if you cared enough to read this article.

Avoiding Patronizing

Once we start the meat of the process, we need to be very careful to ask questions that are not just leading, they’re guiding. Unfortunately, this is also very descriptive of patronizing questions. Let’s be clear about what constitutes patronizing.

OED defines patronizing as treating another “with an apparent kindness which betrays a feeling of superiority.” (Kind of like their definition of that word.) Merriam-Webster says it is “talk[ing] to (someone) in a way that shows that you believe you are more intelligent or better than other people.”

There are two difficulties:

  1. This is a subjective experience. With no malintent on your behalf, someone may read superiority into your tone, expression, cadence, delivery, vocabulary, or anything else you’re using to communicate.

  2. We’re conditioned to see teachers as authority figures. This means that there’s an increased likelihood that folks will interpret superiority where none was intended, and it also means that we’re conditioned to act with superiority when attempting to mentor others.

As it is a purely subjective experience, we might be tempted to gauge another’s reactions to our questions to detect whether we’re being experienced as patronizing. But I’d recommend against that. First of all, it might require reading between the lines, which is counterproductive because it tends to add non-present information; it’s the behavior that was likely to have made you seem patronizing in the first place. Additionally, in text-only communication platforms, there are no non-verbal cues to interpret. This makes it highly likely you will misinterpret something like “hold on a sec” as an indicator of exasperation instead of as “I really need to pee” (for example). Finally, even with trust, we are likely not qualified to determine whether they can even understand the social cues and behaviors that might result in this assessment.

We’re most likely to be misunderstood for patronizing if we ask questions that have obvious answers. If we think we might be asking such a question, the onus is on us to preface it with, “I’m sorry if this is obvious; …” But this doesn’t really help if we genuinely don’t know. If a response comes back that seems exasperated, we can apologize: “I’m sorry, I’m trying to understand the problem from your perspective. I didn’t intend any condescention.” The goal here again is to reinforce trust.

Avoiding Frustration

Sometimes these exercises can go on for a long time. Learning can be an arduous and time-consuming process. This is likely to result in one or both of you becoming tired and frustrated.

If you notice your mentee repeating previous mistakes or becoming frustrated (and especially if you notice yourself becoming frustrated), take a time-boxed break. Neurologically, we are not wired to learn by spending more than a few hours on a task (which is why methods like spaced practice / segmented study work really well). Negotiate a break and a time when you can both get back to solving the problem.


In both cases, curiosity is crucial. We ostensibly have knowledge our mentee lacks, which is why we are in a position to help. Yet we cannot offer this knowledge in a Socratic dialogue, where we are primarily asking questions. Somehow, we need to use this knowledge to ask the right questions, and this is why we need curiosity.

In my QConSF talk, I said that curiosity “is really about understanding where your mentee or your colleagues are coming from.” Only when we are able to truly empathize with folks can we successfully employ the Socratic Method. The basis of employing Socratic methodologies should always be to understand the mentee. We likely already know the problem and the solution, but the goal of a Socratic exercise is to allow an individual to independently discover the solution (a far more rewarding experience than the “learn-by-rote” method of teaching to which we are all accustomed).

To this end, really try to put yourself in your mentee’s shoes. Don’t ask questions that are clearly within the mentee’s knowledge: this is blatantly patronizing. Don’t ask questions that are clearly outside the mentee’s knowledge: this is both patronizing and frustrating. The goal with each question should be to ask from the edge of the mentee’s ability such that new knowledge is formed with the answer to each question. Understanding your mentee’s existing knowledge, perspectives, and favorite learning methods is crucial for effectively employing Socratic exercises.

In Closing

We may be avoiding employing Socratic exercises as a learning tool in our work and education environments because we don’t wish to be condescending. Yet it is only by practicing such exercises that we can really identify how to best use this method without patronizing or frustrating others. Like nearly everything in life, Socratic learning methods are a skill, and we only get better with practice. I hope that this post can serve to help others engage more effectively in this amazing teaching tool we have to help others in their own lifelong journies of learning.

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