Much of applied psychology and psychotherapy aims to help the client move from a belief that keeps them helpless and stuck towards one that is helpful and enables mobility into a more positive existence. The purpose of positive psychology interventions (PPI) is to create this shift in a person’s behaviour that enables them to live a life that is flourishing. Although the types of interventions developed are varied, this blog suggests the use of Socratic questioning is an important way to empower people.
What is Socratic questioning?
Socrates was a classical Greek philosopher who developed critical thinking through a form of open ended and logical questioning to solve a problem. The Socratic dialectic method applies a series of questions to hep a person or group go deeper into their values and beliefs to find the answer. He was one of the first to recognise that the subconscious often held knowledge that the person is unaware of.
Part of Socrates legacy is the beliefs that underpin the questions.
- No one desires evil
- No one does wrong or errs willingly or knowingly
- Virtue is knowledge
- Virtue is sufficient for happiness
How does it relate to positive psychology?
When Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi first promoted positive psychology in 2000 as “the study of positive traits” they recognised the importance of the ancient philosophers like Socrates who framed morality in terms of good character and having a just life. It set positive psychology in a frame that recognised that all people want to live a good life through the expression of their virtues (strengths) and positive intention, with an outcome of finding their own meaning. Strengths are a central component of positive psychology and form many of the interventions that are used across different contexts.
When we think of Socratic questioning in positive psychology interventions we need to firstly believe that everyone has the ability to work out the answer for themselves. This empowers people to believe that they can change their circumstances themselves. This is done without judgement, with respect and with curiosity. All positive psychology interventions aim to hold a mirror up to show how the current experience of the world is not the only option, so that people can make choices to make a positive change.
Examples of Socratic questioning in positive psychology interventions
A significant area where Socratic questioning is used is within coaching. Positive coaching focuses on helping the coachee move from a stuck state to a positive future state. By asking questions that challenge the coachee to identify why they do what they do it enables them to see the possibility of new ways of being. Tim Gallwey developed a model encompassing ‘Awareness’, ‘Choice’, and ‘Trust’ which perfectly represents the Socratic Method. The model includes questions that help the coachee become more aware of their belief system, shows them they have choices to change, and gives them the insight that they already hold the solutions within them.
The area of meaning is becoming more prevalent within positive psychology. Meaning is a core part of what Viktor Frankl developed through ‘logotherapy’ which is influential today in the work of researchers such as Paul T.P. Wong and Michael Steger. According to Steger meaning is found when people can comprehend, make sense of, and see significance in their lives. What is important about Frankl and Wong’s work is the acceptance of the ‘dark side’ of life which is an essential part of asking honest and revealing questions of oneself. When looking at meaning Socratic questioning is used as a tool for self-discovery, enabling people to get in touch with their subconscious and their potential for change. It helps people gain perspective, guides them towards a new attitude, draws attention to what they have already achieved, and brings a stronger purpose to their lives.
Although second wave positive psychology recognises the value of so called ‘negative emotions’ as holding equal value as positive ones, a finding in research by Barbara Fredrickson into positive emotions shows how they enable a more flexible and broader perspective. As we increase our positive emotions we build our resilience towards challenging events. PPI’s that enable positive emotions to flourish are those that seek to focus on a positive future, savour the good things in life, be grateful and broaden the options available to them through more complex emotions and cognitive reasoning. These are underpinned by Socratic questioning of what could be, moving the client away from their present state into a more creative mindset.
These are just a small sample of how Socratic questioning can and does exist within positive psychology. Maybe you can spot more ways PPI’s could use the power of critical, non-judgemental, open-ended questions to create insight and mobility?
About the author: Lisa Jones