Executive coaching has become an increasingly popular method to develop leaders worldwide. Because coaching is fragmented, there are many styles and approaches to coaching. One of the most common methods used by coaches is the Socratic Method.
The Socratic Method, defined by open questions and probes to stimulate insight, has become so pervasive that many coaching governing bodies define coaching by this technique. At conferences, coaches focus almost exclusively on this technique, and how to ask questions without leading the client to an answer.
Ironically, what we do not seem to be asking is one question that Socrates himself might ask: Is the Socratic Method the best way to coach and develop leaders?
Socratic Method Originally Used to Explore Abstract Concepts
Socrates used questions and probes to explore opposing viewpoints. Questions were designed to stimulate critical thinking between two people. In this way, flaws in the arguments would become apparent, and the individuals involved in the debate would come to greater reasoning and truth. The individuals would not necessarily get to the truth, but they would reject less reasonable arguments. The technique was used in particular, to debate concepts with little concrete definition such as justice, courage or virtue.
Coaches Use Technique to Help Leaders Gain Awareness, Change Mind Set
Many coaches view their role as a neutral guide. They see a coach as someone who asks questions, but does not lead the client to answers. In this model, there is no pre-set answer. Instead, the client must identify his or her own answers.
This method can help leaders gain greater self-awareness and insight based on their own values, beliefs and perspective. Ultimately, leaders can change their own mental models or ways they perceive the world so that they can be more effective.
Socratic questioning may be especially helpful to leaders in defining the problem they need to address, changing dysfunctional behaviours (i.e., helping a leader be nice, not a jerk), and critically thinking about a problem in different ways. While useful, this method is not the only method to develop leaders, and it may not be the best technique to use in many situations.
Leaders Learn through their Own and Others’ Experience
Decades of research and our own experience show that leaders learn best from experience and through others. For example, leaders learn how to lead a larger team, create a strategy or manage a complex project when they do it—and can learn from this experience. Coaches can help structure these experiences, help the leader identify what they should learn, acknowledge when the learning takes place, and transfer that learning into new leadership habits. Coaches also can provide advice or suggestions on how to handle a new challenge based on their own experience, which offers new routines that can improve the leader’s effectiveness. A Socratic coach will not provide advice and will not structure these experiences.
Challenges in High Growth Markets Demands New Knowledge
In high growth markets, leader development is often outpaced by the growth demands of their own job. Very quickly, leaders can find themselves going from small to large teams and to increasingly complex challenges. In addition, their jobs often require them to manage in highly complex environments with limited resources.
These demands tax a leader’s skill and knowledge. Coaches can help leaders by providing new theory, tools or knowledge that will help them keep pace with their jobs. There is over a century of modern leadership research and practice that can help leaders, but coaches who rely only upon reflective questioning techniques will not convey relevant knowledge that can augment learning through experience.
Socratic Method has a Western Bias
Socratic coaching is a Western concept. In Asia, many cultures use a Confucian approach to learning. In this approach, a more knowledgeable person passes on wisdom and advice to others. The role of the coach in this case is to advocate for better solutions. Some initial research in this area indicates that Advocacy based approaches to coaching may work better in some Asian cultures.
A Coach Takes You from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be
Remember that the first “coach” was a four-wheeled horse drawn carriage that took people from where they were to where they wanted to be. Leadership coaching should do the same. The Socratic Method is one approach to facilitate this journey, but relying on this approach alone is not sufficient. Coaches must have the knowledge and skills to play different roles, such as an advisor, teacher or guide—when this is needed.
Ask the right question. So, how do we answer the original question for this article: “Where is coaching going wrong?” To begin, we need to move beyond equating this method with “coaching.” Then we should go beyond asking, “How do we use Socratic method?” to asking questions such as “When and where should we use Socratic methods?”, “How might we combine Socratic and Confucian-based approaches for a more global pool of leaders?” or “What is the best method of coaching in terms of getting results in different development contexts?”.
If you are a leader looking for coaching, ask your prospective coach which methods or approaches they use and why. Explore how they vary this based on individual needs and development challenges. Most importantly, understand what you need to develop and make sure your coach can provide the best knowledge, experience and skill to help you be successful.