Reading Time: 7 minutes

Recently I read the book “Socrates on Sneakers” by Elke Wiss. A philosophical guide to asking good questions. The book is basically written around Socratic conversation principle.
A Socratic conversation, also known as a Socratic dialogue, is a form of discussion in which participants engage in a back-and-forth exchange of questions and answers. The purpose of a Socratic conversation is to explore and clarify ideas, uncover assumptions, and challenge underlying beliefs.

Does this sound familiar?

The method of Socratic conversation is named after the philosopher Socrates, who used this approach to question and challenge the beliefs and assumptions of his students. In a Socratic conversation, participants take turns asking questions and responding to each other’s answers. The goal is not to win an argument or prove a point, but rather to deepen understanding and uncover new insights.

A key aspect of a Socratic conversation is the use of open-ended questions that encourage participants to think critically and reflect on their ideas. These questions are designed to stimulate thinking, challenge assumptions, and promote dialogue. Participants are encouraged to explore their own thinking and reasoning, as well as the thinking and reasoning of others.

Overall, a Socratic conversation is a structured approach to dialogue that encourages critical thinking and reflection. It can be used in a variety of settings, including education, business, and personal development, to foster deeper understanding and uncover new insights.

I enjoyed reading this handy little book. Most people ask questions to express their own opinion. And are not really genuinely interested in the opinion, values and standards or arguments of their conversation partner. But in some cases you might want to. In this book you will receive useful tips that you can immediately apply in your business life, but also directly in your private life.

Socratic conversations can be an effective tool in agile development areas, particularly when it comes to fostering collaboration, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. Here are some ways in which you could use a Socratic conversation in an agile development area:

Clarify requirements: During the refinement, the team can use a Socratic conversation to clarify the requirements, potential issues or missing details. By asking probing questions, the team can ensure that everyone is on the same page and has a clear understanding of what needs to be done.

Prioritize tasks: During the sprint planning meeting, the team can use a Socratic conversation to prioritize tasks. By asking questions about the value and impact of each PBI, the team can make more informed decisions about which PBI to tackle first.

Review progress: At the end of each sprint, the team can use a Socratic conversation to review progress. By asking questions about what worked well, what didn’t work, and what could be improved, the team can identify areas for improvement and make any necessary adjustments.

Improve team communication: Socratic conversations can also be used to improve team communication. By encouraging team members to ask questions and listen actively to each other’s responses, the team can build a culture of open communication and collaboration.

Overall, using Socratic conversations in agile development areas can help to foster critical thinking, collaboration, and problem-solving skills, which are essential for building high-performing teams and delivering successful products.

The book includes many techniques and actually makes you think, gives you exercises and can be applied immediately. Let me highlight some interesting things and how to apply these in an Agile context.


Nowadays there is no non-judgment. Today’s society does not appreciate that. Elke Wiss says that you should judge and then immediately not take that judgment seriously. By looking at and questioning that judgment, you come to new insights and you can change your opinion many times. This is contrary to what is happening today. People seem to cling harshly to a judgment or opinion and back it up with arguments. Those arguments are often empty and only serve to support that one opinion. Socrates says that you are free to change your mind. The more you question a situation, look at it in different ways and analyze it through points of view, you get to the core.
If we look at product development in an environment where it is not certain what needs to be built and the problems and challenges of the customer are central, testing hypotheses is a way forward. That doesn’t mean it’s the right way, but it’s an assumption. You can investigate the assumption by experimenting with your product, customers and metrics.
So make an assumption (hypothesis), question it, test it and come to a conclusion with which you create new hypotheses.

Elenchus and aporia

Ever heard of elenchus or aporia? No? No problem, I’ll explain them. One thing I know for sure. You have experienced them!

An important part of Socrates' dialogues is the 'elenchus', which means 'refutation' or also 'embarrassment, shame'. This concept is also translated as 'perplexity' or 'thinking embarrassment', specifically: being perplexed in the face of something that you yourself have always assumed to be true, but which can apparently be refuted by Socrates.

So you are in conversation, have an opinion and are sure that this is correct. And then suddenly you get a question that completely confuses your image. You may have adopted that opinion or inherited it from your parents. These blind spots become explicit and visible in a Socratic conversation. What you once thought to be true is now no longer sufficient and makes you feel ashamed. That’s the elenchus. Do you recognize it?
If we accept that an elenchus is a good thing, then we can make use of it. We can all deal objectively with the things we don’t know. And they are numerous in an Agile context. I would say it even stronger. If there is no elenchus, then you are working in a predictable environment and an agile approach may not be of any use to you.

Socratic conversations often end in "aporia," a general sense of "I don't know.

Ever seen someone throw their hands in the air and say: I really don’t know anymore! Chances are you’ve questioned him or her and discovered a solid not-knowing together. You have looked at, questioned and investigated a case from all sides.
Socrates says that such an aporia gives you enormous freedom. If you remain curious, think through and question everything, even the obvious, you will automatically encounter aporia. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It is a confrontation with the fact that you really know very little. With that awareness you can develop a questioning attitude.

If you’re experiencing an aporia, that’s a good sign. It gives you freedom to explore what you don’t know. Use expertise from your Scrum Master and other professionals to look beyond your own field of vision. Investigating and questioning bring you ever closer to the problem or challenge at hand.

Above and below

Asking Socratic questions helps you think better about the things you say. We can divide the world into two parts: the real world we live in and abstract ideas we have about that world. For example, when we say someone is a good developer, we actually have a lot of ideas and beliefs about what that means. We call these ideas “above”, while the real world is “below”. It is important to be aware of these ideas because they influence our thinking and behavior.
Do you use “above” and “below” questions? Therefore, ask yourself carefully whether the answer or a statement comes from “above” or “below”. This allows you to determine whether there are beliefs, images of people and moral principles or facts, actions or events.
For example, this technique is very welcome when interviewing users of a particular product. Often there is an emotion present and a considerable history in the use of that product. By asking questions “below”, you can better discover the concrete reality, which you can then use in your hypotheses for the product.

Question pitfalls

Are you having trouble getting what you really want to know? Do you have the feeling that you have not been told everything or that something is simply not right. That could well be due to the question pitfalls you have stepped into. Elke Wiss describes these pitfalls and I want to highlight a few.
First the “comma sucker question”. That’s a question after which you can put a comma followed by sucker. It’s basically an opinion wrapped in a question. This comma sucker question sets the tone and can totally kill your good conversation. By recognizing these, you can avoid them.
As a coach you can pay attention to this and coach team members on these pitfalls. This also applies to stakeholders and other parties involved.
Another example is “Half-baked apple pie”
Many of the questions we ask are only half-finished. We serve our conversation partner, as it were, half-baked apple pie. It can hardly be recognized as apple pie, you don’t know exactly what you taste and what you have to react to. It works the same way with questions: the other person no longer knows exactly what answer he should give when you ask a question that ‘does not stand on its own’.
Product Owner and team members eliciting requirements can benefit from recognizing these question types and pitfalls. They can then effectively use and avoid them to get to the bottom of the matter.

Tennis and a bridge

“Asking good questions can be compared to a game of tennis: one player hits a ball, well aimed, straight at the goal and waits. Until the other hits the same ball back.”
There’s no point in hitting three more balls after you’ve just hit a ball. There’s also no point in closing your eyes while hitting the ball and having no idea where it lands. There is also no point running after the ball and adjusting it after hitting it.
There’s also no point in standing next to your tennis partner and telling him how to hit the ball back. Or to juggle cheerfully with three tennis balls while your opponent expects a ball. There’s also no point in getting mad at your partner if he doesn’t hit the ball back the way you expected. Asking good questions requires patience, focus and good timing, just like a game of tennis.
“When you really understand the other person, you have entered his thinking, you can make room for your story, your point of view. After all, you don’t just want to express your opinion, you also want the other person to be able to hear and absorb that opinion, right? That means you are building a bridge.”
A sturdy bridge requires solid banks on both sides. That is why it is important to first invest sufficient time, attention and energy in listening and understanding the other person’s thinking. If that bank is solid, you can build a bridge and invite the other to listen to your side of the story and to investigate.
You can also shape the bridge in the form of a question. Imagine you are sitting at a table with a friend or colleague and you have just extensively questioned and researched the other person’s opinion. It’s likely that at some point someone will ask, “What do you think? What do you think about this? What do you think about this?”
If that doesn’t happen, you can create space yourself by proposing, “I have some ideas about this too, shall I share them with you?” Or, “That’s an interesting point of view. I don’t agree with you on all points. Can I tell you how I see it?”
Stakeholder management is often a difficult part of the Agile world. What stakeholder management actually comes down to is communication in which a combination of a clear topic and questioning techniques come together. Playing tennis and building a bridge could definitely help you.


Learning to ask questions is useful for everyone. In your private life, but also at work. The book by Elke Wiss contains good tips and makes you think. I will also adjust my questions myself and adopt a Socrates attitude if necessary.
Also, elenchus and aporia are new words and knowledge to me. These are also easy to recognize and through that recognition you can better deal with situations. If we try to accept elenchus and aporia, together we can better serve customers, achieve goals and improve product quality.
Playing tennis and building bridges is what we do all day. Using these techniques can improve our communication, collaboration and eventually our customers and products will benefit from this.

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