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  • Writer's pictureJay Williams

Socrates vs. Confucius

Socratic method: Socrates was an ancient Greek philosopher known for a technique in which a teacher does not give information directly, but instead asks a series of questions to spark new thinking and learning.


Confucius method: Confucius was an influential Chinese philosopher, teacher, and political figure known for his popular method in which teachers instruct their students.


Socrates Asks. Teaches how to learn. Student-led learning. Provides questions.


Confucius Tells. Teaches what is learned. Instructor-led learning. Provides answers.


I worked with a group of leaders in California around how to communicate, lead and maximize the thinking of the people in their organization. I shared the following series of questions to help the leaders uncover their people’s thinking when faced with resolving a particular issue:

  • What was your perspective on what happened?

  • What do you think your peer’s perspective was?

  • What do you think the client’s perspective was?

  • What do you think my perspective would be?

  • Based on what you know, what would you stop, start or continue to do going forward?

Leandro, who oversaw training for the company, stood up and said, “Our job as leaders is to help people discover what they already know.”


Leandro discovered the goal of the Socratic method. Questions allow for and create the skills needed for self-discovery, self-awareness, self-accountability, and self-solving. Asking questions allows you to identify where someone is in their thought process and where he/she/they needs help with their thinking.


How can you determine what they know or their level of thinking if you’re telling them what to do? It’s your role as a leader to teach them one thing: how to learn. People learn when they gain insights from thinking about an issue, and questions drive people to think.


However, telling also has its place and there are times you will need to use a telling format to teach. But first, you must ask questions to determine when, what, and if you need to teach. Teaching or instruction is needed when a person does not have the thinking, knowledge, resources, and experience to figure things out on their own.


Asking the right questions is your role as a leader. This will vary from person to person and situation to situation. It’s only through asking the right questions that you’ll be able to determine when to teach. Start by asking:

  • Where could you go to get that information?

  • Whom could you speak to who has experience in that area?

  • What resources can you tap into to learn more on this topic?

  • What have you always wanted to try, but haven’t?


The context of this conversation is around your leadership style, not your teaching style. What studies have shown in academia is that these same principles apply.

A recent study for teachers stated: “Many will assume that teaching is more important than learning; the truth is, learning is more important because it’s the end goal of teaching.”


Better leaders realize that better thinking drives better performance. If they want to improve their people’s performance they need to start with improving their thinking. How does your approach improve how your people think? (See what I did there with the Socratic* method of asking a question?)


*Socrates was condemned to death for his Socratic method of questioning, but don’t let that discourage you!

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