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Socratic Questioning and Why it is Important in CBT

Socratic Questioning is used even beyond academic work. Did you know it’s used in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)? If not, read this mini-guide to learn why this technique of inquiry is important when it comes to this type of therapy.

By Bernard Ramirez on Jun 16, 2024.

Fact Checked by RJ Gumban.

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Socratic Questioning

Socratic Questioning is a mode of inquiry developed by one of history’s most influential philosophers, Socrates. It’s a technique that people use to clarify their thoughts and how they perceive things by having them question their beliefs, assumptions, preconceived notions, and ideas.

This technique aims to help people unpack what they think and believe in until no more questions can be asked all possible perspectives have been considered, and all bases have been covered. It’s an effective way of seeing if a person truly understands what they think they know, and if not, it aims to help them understand what they need to know to have better knowledge and understanding of things. For Socrates, for a person to gain true understanding and knowledge, they must learn how to question everything and exercise critical thinking.

What is Socratic Questioning?

Now that you know what Socratic Questioning is generally all about, it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty of things.

Socratic Questioning, or the Socratic Method, involves asking numerous open-ended questions about a topic. It can be as open-ended as “Why are you like this,” which is what Socrates’ was probably asked of by his peers more times than anyone could count.

These should be open-ended so that people answering can have the opportunity and, hopefully, get the encouragement needed to think deeply about their thoughts and beliefs. The Socratic Method was not developed necessarily to find answers but rather to better understand why they think the way they think. Doing so is a good way to discover nuances they might not have considered before, thus leading to better reasoning, decision-making, and problem-solving skills.

In order to properly practice Socratic Questioning, here are some principles to consider:

  1. Ask open-ended and non-judgmental questions. This means that whatever questions are asked, they should not nudge people to a specific answer or suggest any specific answers. These questions should instill a sense of curiosity in the person so they can unpack their thoughts and ideas.
  2. The open-ended and non-judgmental questions should only revolve around the person’s own thoughts. This means that whatever is being asked has to focus on the person’s beliefs, ideas, and assumptions. Questions about things that have nothing to do with the beliefs of the person should not be asked, nor should questions about other people’s beliefs.
  3. Last, these open-ended questions be framed in a supportive way because the last thing you want is to make the person feel attacked, confronted, or judged. These questions should help them develop critical and nuanced thinking to better understand and reason their beliefs.

Why is Socratic Questioning used in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

The last principle that we mentioned, which is the one about framing the open-ended questions in a supportive way, is ironic considering that Socrates was one of the most hated men in Ancient Athens, mainly because he pestered people with questions and made everyone feel embarrassed because they looked like fools and ignoramuses whenever questioned by him.

If only he asked his questions in a supportive and empathic way, then maybe the ancient Athenian court wouldn’t have executed him.

But despite that, he was on to something, and after centuries of refinement, his technique of inquiry is now widely used, especially in mental health fields like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

Socratic Questioning is an integral part of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy because of its benefits. We already know that Socratic Questioning can help people develop critical thinking skills, but here are other things that Socratic Questioning can help with:

  1. It can help CBT patients develop the attitude needed to challenge their negative thoughts and beliefs.

Persons with negative thoughts and beliefs may develop depression and anxiety over time. CBT employs the Socratic Method to help them identify these negative thoughts and beliefs, to be more specific about them and why they have these thoughts and beliefs, and to help them discover more positive ways of thinking to challenge these negative thoughts and beliefs.

  1. It can lead to the development of coping strategies.

To jump off the point about challenging negative thoughts and beliefs, by being able to challenge such thoughts and beliefs, they should also be able to discover new and positive ways to respond to the trials and tribulations that they face so that they can cope healthily and adapt more easily to situations.

  1. It can help individuals discover things about themselves and empower them.

Since one of the goals of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is to identify a person’s negative thoughts and beliefs, Socratic Questioning can help them develop new insights and perspectives regarding their thoughts and beliefs. If they can discover more insights and perspectives about themselves, they might be able to see themselves in a different light and work to shape themselves for the better.

In short, Socratic Questioning can encourage goal setting by making them more self-aware. The more self-aware they are, the higher the chances they will become emotionally well-equipped to manage their mental health and sense of self.

How to use Socratic Questioning in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

Now that you know why Socratic Questioning is essential to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, you are probably wondering how exactly this technique of inquiry even applied. Here is how it is usually employed:

  1. Ask your patient about their negative thoughts and beliefs.

One of the core goals of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is to pinpoint the negative thoughts and beliefs a patient has that are contributing to their mental health decline. The only way to identify them is to get them to talk about it, so, using the Socratic Method, healthcare professionals can ask: “What are you thinking about right now?” or “What thoughts are currently occupying/going through your mind?”

  1. Examine the evidence.

Once your patient can state all their negative thoughts and beliefs, it’s time for you, the professional, to ask them to provide evidence that supports and refutes them. This is so you can help them find more nuanced perspectives. You can ask them: “Would you happen to have any evidence that supports/refutes those thoughts?” 

  1. Have them consider alternative ways of examining their thoughts and beliefs.

Since the Socratic Method will have them weighing evidence, they will be able to find alternative ways of looking at their current thoughts and beliefs, which should create opportunities for them to find more nuanced explanations as to why they think the way they think and why they believe what they believe.

Socratic Questioning can also help them discover more positive thoughts and beliefs as well! And positive thoughts and beliefs can encourage them to pursue goals to actualize them instead of doing nothing and letting negative thoughts and beliefs fester and manifest (which is the last thing anyone wants to happen).

To help them find alternative ways of thinking about their thoughts and beliefs, you can ask them questions like: “Is there a more positive way of looking at this situation?” or “What is a more balanced way of looking at this belief of yours?”

  1. Have them work towards actualizing their positive thoughts and beliefs.

If the patient can identify positive thoughts and beliefs, the professional should encourage them to pursue these new and better thoughts and beliefs. Of course, since one of the principles of Socratic Questioning is that you are not supposed to nudge them to do it, simply asking certain questions could do the job for you without being heavy-handed about it. 

You can ask them questions like: “What do you think you need to do to pursue this positive thought you mentioned?” or “What do you expect to feel or happen when you pursue this positive thought?"

26 Examples of Socratic Questioning in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

In the previous section, we mentioned a few questions you could ask your patient as part of the Socratic Method. In particular Cognitive Behavioral Therapy practices like Decatastrophizing, combating intrusive thoughts, and showing self-compassion, use Socratic Questioning. Here are twenty examples of Socratic Questions that you can ask whenever you are treating patients using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (do note that your questions will depend on what type of CBT assessment or exercise you are doing):

  1. How does this thought or belief affect your emotions?
  2. How does this thought or belief affect your behavior?
  3. How does this thought or belief affect your overall mood?
  4. How does this thought or belief affect your relationships?
  5. How does this thought or belief affect your physical health?
  6. How does this thought or belief affect your work?
  7. What evidence supports this thought or belief?
  8. What evidence contradicts this thought or belief?
  9. If you are holding onto this thought or belief, what is the benefit of doing so?
  10. If you are holding onto this thought or belief, what is the cost of doing so?
  11. Did something happen to you that made you think this way/believe in this?
  12. What is the best-case scenario if this thought or belief were false?
  13. What is the worst-case scenario if this thought or belief was true?
  14. What is the likelihood of the worst-case scenario?
  15. What is the likelihood of the best-case scenario?
  16. Regarding what happened to you, would you know of any other possible explanations as to why it happened?
  17. What is a more balanced way of looking at what happened to you?
  18. What is the most helpful belief you think you can hold onto while you are dealing with the challenges you are facing?
  19. What are your values?
  20. What thoughts and beliefs align with your values?
  21. How does a particular thought or belief align with your values?
  22. Why is this thought or belief helpful and how will it serve you in the short term?
  23. Why is this thought or belief helpful and how will it serve you in the long term?
  24. What’s a more positive outcome to look forward to?
  25. How would you feel if you are able to attain that positive outcome?
  26. What do you need to do to reach that positive outcome?

These are just some of the Socratic Questions you can ask your patient. Their relevance to your patient will depend on what they are dealing with and how you plan to address it through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

Tips for using Socratic Questioning in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

If you are wondering about how you can effectively employ Socratic Questioning in your Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) practice, just keep in mind the following:

  1. Begin by asking simple questions.

Remember that your questions are supposed to be open-ended and non-judgmental. Besides that, you should also refrain from asking more complex questions. Begin with simpler ones so you can establish rapport and trust. You might overwhelm your patient and cause them unnecessary stress if you go straight to discussing their problems.

  1. Tailor-fit your questions in the long run.

Depending on what specific CBT-related problems you seek to address, the questions you should ask will differ from one person to the next. Once you have gotten to know them better through simple questions, slowly start asking questions related to their circumstance. Of course, just as a reminder, don’t be specific with the questions. Leave them open enough that they can expound on their answers themself.

Make sure that the questions you ask are framed in a way that encourages them to reflect on themself as well as their current thoughts and beliefs, so they can develop insights, alternative perspectives, and more positive thoughts on their own.

  1. Exercise patience and show empathy.

Given that you start out as a stranger to your patient, don’t expect them to open up immediately. Some people may find it easy to communicate with strangers, but most people don’t, especially if they are revealing things about themselves. Give them the space and time they need. If you need to, reframe or rephrase your questions, or reiterate them.

Also, make sure you can convey empathy whenever you ask questions and respond to their answers. If there are misunderstandings, apologize and get clarification. Don’t be like Socrates. Well, it’s unlikely that you’ll be executed, but you will draw the ire of your patient if you don’t practice empath and show support.

How can Carepatron help with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy work?

If you are already practicing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy but have not exactly dabbled with the parts that employ Socratic Questioning, then you know what this mode of inquiry is all about. We have all sorts of guides on our platform that you can read that may help you expand your scope of work regarding Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

Not only do we have guides for you to read, but we also have a wide variety of mental health worksheets in our repository of resources! We mentioned earlier that Decatastrophizing is a type of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy technique. We have a worksheet that uses that technique, and you will notice that it encourages the use of Socratic Questioning to help the patient reframe their negative thoughts and beliefs into something more positive.

We also have other CBT-related worksheets, assessments, surveys, and even general treatment plans that you might want to check out! Feel free to download and use as much as you want and need!

Carepatron is all about helping healthcare professionals with their practices by helping them streamline their workflows and providing them with resources to improve their work and cover more ground with their patients! So, check out our platform! We’re sure we’ll be able to help you become more efficient!

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Commonly asked questions

How is Socratic Questioning effective when treating mental health?

Depending on the person’s mental health problems, Socratic Questioning can be used to help them reframe any negative thoughts and beliefs into more positive ones, which will help lead them to a better and more positive state of mind.

Can Socratic Questioning be used outside of CBT sessions?

Yes. Let’s say you are a healthcare professional. You can teach your patient Socratic Questioning, which they can practice outside your therapy hours. Practicing Socratic Questioning outside of therapy hours is an excellent way to continue the work that both you (the professional) and your patient have put into improving the patient’s mental health.

Are there any risks to using Socratic Questioning for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

Nothing significant, however, it is essential to note that Socratic Questioning should only be practiced by someone experienced with employing that kind of inquiry technique. If Socratic Questioning isn’t employed properly, you may end up doing what Socrates did, which is to make people feel embarrassed and stupid, and these are feelings that patients taking Cognitive Behavioral Therapy shouldn’t feel, considering what they are already going through.

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