To get the right answers, you have to ask the right questions

As a detective, one of the best partners I ever worked with could get the truth out of a potato.

And unlike the movies…

He didn’t hit perps with phone books.

He didn’t slap people around.

He didn’t threaten people.

His secret sauce was in approaching every single interview like he was “dumb.” He approached every single conversation as if he didn’t know what the person he was talking to was going to say.

For example, he may have known my name was Ari, but he would have asked anyway. He assumed nothing.

He asked questions:

  • To clarify points, i.e. why do you think that?
  • That challenged assumptions, i.e. how do you know it was 9 pm?
  • That challenged evidence, i.e. why would the video show you there?
  • About their perspective, i.e. what do you think happened?
  • About consequences, i.e. what are you implying?
  • About about questions, i.e. why do you think I asked this question?
  • Sometimes, the questions he asked were so simple that people looked at him in disbelief. It was like they couldn’t figure out how this guy was a detective. 

But they ALWAYS answered the questions. And his follow-up questions provided him second-to-none clarity in victim and witness statements.

Most importantly, they were the RIGHT questions.

He was able to get the context behind a story in nearly every situation. This led him to see many things that others may have missed.

He might not have been able to tell you the foundation behind his methods, but I can.

The Socratic Method in Criminal Investigations

My partner was using a ‘modified’ version of the Socratic Method.

In this method, the teacher (or interviewer in this case) plays “dumb,” even if they know the answer.

The questions he asked helped him to learn how things worked in the context of the environment and situation. 

His method of inquiry allowed him to judge the logic and validity of evidence. It allowed him to question assumptions and to develop his own robust understanding of the case.

His questions always led him to better questions.

The strength of the Socratic method is in its ability to analyze a concept or line of reasoning. 

My partner used it to solve complex criminal cases. YOU can use it to develop strategy, solve complex business problems, figure out what to build next, etc.

How to ‘use’ Socratic questioning 

This begs the question; how do you use it?

In two words…

Question everything.

You then begin by working backward from the big or main question you want to answer. From there, you develop smaller, leading questions to work through a thinking process. 

Part of the Socratic process is challenging all evidence and assumptions you encounter. It is important that you remain focused on understanding what you are exploring. This includes seeking to understand the ultimate foundations for what is “known.” 

You should treat all thoughts as in need of exploration and development. 

Types of Socratic Questions and Examples

There are six primary Socratic question categories:

1. Questions for clarification:

  • What do you mean by…?
  • Could you put that another way?
  • What do you think is the main issue?

2. Tell me more about…

  • Questions that probe assumptions:
  • What could we assume instead?
  • You seem to be assuming (x), correct?
  • Do I understand you correctly?
  • How can you verify or disapprove that assumption?

3. Questions that probe reasons and evidence:

  • What would be an example?
  • What is….analogous to?
  • Why do you think this is true?
  • Is there reason to doubt that evidence?
  • What led you to believe that?
  • What do you think (x) causes to happen…? Why:?

4. Questions about Viewpoints and Perspectives:

  • What would be an alternative?
  • What is another way to look at it?
  • Would you explain why it is necessary or beneficial, and who benefits?
  • Why is the best?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of…?
  • How are…and …similar?
  • What is a counterargument for…?

5. Questions that probe implications and consequences:

  • What generalizations can you make?
  • What are the consequences of that assumption?
  • What are you implying?
  • What is an alternative?
  • How does…affect…?

6. Questions about the question:

  • What was the point of this question?
  • Why do you think I asked this question?
  • What does…mean?

Using Socratic Questioning to be a Better Thinker

Becoming a more deliberate thinker requires that you ask better questions. The Socratic method helps you ask those questions.

Consider this, when you ask Google or Alexa a question and she provides an answer, what comes next? Nothing. You have your answer. This is because answers, by nature, signal a full stop in thought.

When we arrive at an answer we tend to accept it and move on. 

But, when we continue to question, we find things that we have missed. Questions drive thinking forward. They foster innovation. They define tasks, express problems, and delineate issues. 

Continuous questioning, known as an inquiry, occurs when questions generate further questions. This is the platinum standard of investigation and exploration.

I am not suggesting we don’t proceed once we have an answer. In addition, I am also not suggesting that more information is better. I am suggesting that we continue to question our assumptions and information to ensure it is answering the questions we are asking. 

Our quest for information should not be driven by answers, but by asking the right questions. 

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