The Highest Form of Human Excellence

“I know you won’t believe me, but the highest form of Human Excellence is to question oneself and others.”

-Socrates

When someone asks me a question I typically respond with an immediate answer. There are many issues with this including:

  1. I may give the wrong answer.
  2. I am not helping the questioner learn how to solve problems; instead I am only enhancing their reliance on others.
  3. I am not growing as a leader whose job is to develop people.

Instead of answering the person I would be far better served by countering their question with a question of my own. Even a simple, “What do you think?” response could be an extremely powerful learning opportunity.

The Slave Boy

The great philosopher Socrates once used this questioning approach to help a young slave boy solve a complex geometry problem by asking a series of questions. Socrates offered no assistance aside from making the young boy think. The kicker was the boy had never studied geometry a day in his life prior to this.

While this “Socratic method” can at times frustrate those who simply want an answer, it is the only way to really help a person grow as a problem solver.

Question Yourself

Finally, I think it is important we question ourselves. When we feel like we have come to a conclusion we should ask, “How can it be better?” or “What am I missing?”

If the true spirit of kaizen is to never stop improving I conclude we should never stop asking questions of ourselves and others.

So, if you don’t mind me asking, what do you think?

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10 Comments

  1. Brad

    January 8, 2008 - 8:14 pm

    Ron, what a great article! I also have problems with giving answers too quickly. I suppose we all have areas to focus on this year..

  2. Ron Pereira

    January 8, 2008 - 9:08 pm

    Thanks Brad. Yes, I definitely need to improve in this area myself. I am practicing with my 3 kids! It’s sort of cool to see how they respond when I ask them “what do you think?”

  3. pete abilla

    January 8, 2008 - 11:26 pm

    Nice article.

    I studied Philosophy & Mathematics as an undergraduate and was exposed very early on to the Socratic Method. In graduate school and into employment, I found my teachers and mentors at work also using the Socratic method. Through osmosis and eventually teaching at the University level, I now naturally use the Socratic method and find myself learning much more than if I simply answered the questioner’s question.

    Plus, it is an excercise in humility to ask and listen, instead of just responding with an answer, as if we had all the answers anyway.

  4. Karthik Chandramouli

    January 10, 2008 - 10:13 am

    In the Toyota Way, often times you will never receive praise or validation for your solutions, because the goal is develop your ability to see, think critically, and continually challenge yourself.

    If your boss always says “good job” it soon becomes meaningless. It may not be culturally acceptable to have an ambiguous response to a “solution” but that is precisely what senior executives need to do more often.

    Rather than reacting overtly to every presentation they see, it might be interesting to keep one’s reactions muted and challenge people with more questions than statements (good or bad).

    This style of Socratic dialogue is exceptionally frustrating as a learner, but it develops discipline and perseverance to understand a problem deeply.

  5. Mark Graban

    January 10, 2008 - 1:14 pm

    Building on Karthik, I’ve heard John Shook describe how a Toyota manager will never just accept an idea or say yes without probing and asking lots of questions first — why is that the best solution? what else did you consider?

    That’s a very powerful methodology and might be mistaken for NOT having respect for people… but it’s more respectful than not challenging people to get better and it’s more respectful than always saying “good job,” like Karthik said.

    My client teams always get frustrated with me for not giving them answers… “You know the answer, tell us what that other hospital did” they’ll say. My job is to get them thinking and figuring it out for myself, otherwise their improvement stops once I’m gone, as a consultant.

    My wife, on the other hand, hates it when I answer a question with a question, it’s just a pet peeve of hers… so I try avoiding that with her 🙂

  6. Pete Abilla

    January 11, 2008 - 1:11 pm

    I want to point out also that the worldview of the Toyota Way is that people *know* and can arrive at effective solutions. So, the Socratic Method is a way to *pull* that knowledge out of them.

    It is an incredible exercise in humility and charity to listen and help the person, through questioning, to come-up, for themselves, with better solutions.

    It is almost hubris to reactively respond and provide answers — doing is an exhibit in wanting to hear oneself instead of attentively listening to the other.

  7. Ron Pereira

    January 11, 2008 - 1:20 pm

    Thanks for the great comments everyone.

  8. Quinn

    May 14, 2008 - 11:02 pm

    (Sorry if I wander in my thoughts but this post got me thinking.)
    Correct me if I am wrong but the current paradigm in human resources is to find people that “know” the answers off the top of their head, when asked in a job interview (or they HR has convinced themselves that by your response to some silly questions they can psychoanalize you).

    They also will yield the job candidates that have been trained through many years of course work that there is a “correct” answer to every problem and it is those in authority who have the “answers.” The thing is the boss or authority figure may or may not have the answer but utilizing the socratic method the manager can verify the analysis of the employee that is being “developed.” So my question is, how do you take employees initially selected for their ability to know the answers and develop them into socratic-managers, or is the job interview process in need of some retooling?

    My hope is that this did not come off as a rant but merely some musings on this topic you have presented.