Socratic dialogue

4 min read

The Socratic dialogue is a questioning technique deeply rooted in Western philosophy, dating back to Socrates, the Greek philosopher of the 5th century BCE. Considered one of the founders of Western thought, Socrates distinguished himself by his teaching method, not based on direct knowledge transfer, but rather on a series of questions aimed at encouraging individual reflection and guiding his interlocutors toward a deeper, personal understanding of truth.

In the context of psychology, the Socratic dialogue has become an essential component of many therapies, particularly cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), where it was formalized as a therapeutic technique in the 1950s-1960s through the works of pioneers like Aaron T. Beck. The Socratic dialogue in CBT is used to deconstruct and examine automatic thoughts and irrational or dysfunctional beliefs that can contribute to psychological disorders.

Usage in therapy.
In therapy, the Socratic dialogue unfolds as a structured exchange between the therapist and the patient. The therapist poses a series of open-ended questions that assist the patient in exploring and challenging their thoughts and beliefs. This technique is designed to help patients gain a better understanding of their problems, stimulate their critical thinking, and activate beneficial cognitive change.

Session process.
A typical session of Socratic dialogue may begin with the therapist asking the patient to describe a specific problem or situation causing distress. Continuing the exchange, the therapist guides the patient with questions like, "What makes you say that?", "What evidence do you have for this belief?" or "How would you feel if you had a different perspective?".
The goal is to encourage the patient to see things from a different angle, challenge assumptions, and ultimately restructure their thinking in a more functional and realistic way.

Areas of intervention.
The Socratic dialogue is particularly useful in cases where patients have anxiety, depression, or thought disorders. It helps address issues such as : 
  • cognitive distortions, where the patient has a distorted perception of reality,
  • limiting beliefs that hinder the patient from reaching their full potential, 
  • and intrusive or obsessive thoughts characteristic of obsessive-compulsive disorders.

Expected benefits.
Practitioners using this technique often observe that patients begin to:
  • Question the truth and usefulness of their own automatic thoughts.
  • Develop greater cognitive flexibility.
  • Gradually free themselves from dichotomous thinking (all or nothing).
  • Generate more adaptive alternative solutions.

The Socratic dialogue as a psychological tool draws on the classic foundation of Socratic inquiry into truth through questioning. It has been reviewed and adapted to meet the needs of modern therapy, allowing patients to explore and understand their thinking processes critically and work toward their psychological well-being. Effectively conducted, this technique promotes self-awareness, self-reflection, and personal development, essential for overcoming psychological distress.

The Cogito cycle initiates a process of self-reflection and self-awareness through a guided journal based on philosophical questioning. To learn more about the Cogito approach, you can visit the dedicated help page.