How to Progress From Debate to Dialogue Using the Socratic Method

How to use Socratic method
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You don’t need an argument. Socrates shows how we can have a constructive conversation instead

The Socratic method? What on earth is that and why should I care? 

Great questions. 

I have been professionally taught (as a bomb disposal officer) and teach (as an instructor) question technique.  I have also studied ancient history and modern psychology. With all that knowledge I have found there is little to beat the ancient wisdom of the Socratic method. That is why I use it, not only in my work as a professional coach but also in everyday discussions. 

I recommend the Socratic method as it is a simple and practical approach to dialogue that you can use when having pretty much any discussion. As you read this you may find that you are using some of the techniques already.

So, whether you are a leader trying to manage your team, a frustrated buyer trying to deal with customer service, or just down in the bar putting the world to right, you will find something here for you.

I came here for an argument

Imagine that someone says something to you that you think is wrong. Time for a debate, right? You can point out their mistake and put your (obviously better) point across. Job done; argument won.

But what if winning the argument is at the expense of a relationship? What if you misunderstood what they were trying to say? Worse still, what if your position is wrong? I expect that we can all think of plenty of examples which is why we all have something to learn.

“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”

Socrates 

Conversational game theory

We often treat discussions as a zero-sum game. In other words, there is only one winner: win-lose in game theory parlance.

This type of dialogue is debating; one party is trying to prove that their argument is better than the other persons. But there is the rub. A debate often places emphasis on the ‘better’ rather than the most truthful argument. This is why skilful orators and writers employ rhetorical devices to create forceful arguments. They want to win.

Deep down we all feel slightly soiled when assaulted by these sorts of arguments. But unfortunately, we tend to overlook the negatives of rhetoric when we agree with the point being put across. That is largely due to our own confirmation bias.

The problem is, even when we do agree with some of this rhetoric there is a niggling feeling that things are not quite right, that we cannot move forward. That can happen in personal relationships, at work or on big political and international issues. Try to discuss any wicked problem such as education, health care or the environment and you will see what I mean.

Take politics as another example. One of the things that put many people off politics is the endless rhetoric. This is not a new phenomenon; it did not start with The Daily Show. This Sophist style of rhetoric has been challenged and ridiculed since Aristophanes was writing hit comedies for the ancient Greeks circa 400 BC.

This is because this approach to a conversation leads to the polarised stances of people, issues, and political parties. This type of debate leaves little ground for commonality. Things often end in a stalemate rather than consensus. That is bad for everyone as now we have gone from win-lose to lose-lose

But there is a better way. Win-win outcomes are possible.

Constructive discussion

Dialogue does not need to be a debate. It all depends on the outcome that you are pursuing and how you seek to achieve that endpoint. Are you trying to resolve the argument or win it?

Are you trying to confirm your truth or the truth? The idea of the truth or absolute truth is a post-modern conundrum so let’s park that philosophical debate for a moment. The point of the question is: are you trying to get to the actual best outcome or just what you think is the best outcome? Are you seeking understanding or is it just ‘my way or the highway’?

If you are truly seeking an understanding of an idea and the best outcome for all parties then a dialogue can be a truly creative process. This is the strong belief of Nancy Kline and her development of the ‘Thinking Environment‘ where quality thinking and dialogue can take place.

“Strong minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, weak minds discuss people.”

Socrates

From heated debate to challenging dialogue

That does not mean the dialogue is not robust. You do not have to agree with everything the other person says. In fact, just the opposite. The idea is to understand the other person’s viewpoint but then challenge presuppositions and wrong assumptions. 

This is not only good for getting to the truth (whatever that might be) it can be truly liberating. Good coaches and therapists know that unpicking wrong assumptions is key to unlocking many people’s challenges. It frees people from wrong thinking and therefore frees them. Frequently it is our false beliefs that hold us back. 

So, you can be robust but the approach to the discussion is key. You do not start with the presupposition that you are right.

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

Socrates 

This approach to dialogue goes back a long way, to Aristophanes and before: it is the Socratic (or elenctic) method.

How to use the Socratic method

The Socratic Method (or method of elenchus), as outlined in Plato’s Theaetetus, is a process of questioning that inspires critical thinking and analysis. Primarily the method was designed for moral and philosophical enquiry, but the technique has been used for pretty much any discussion. 

Here I have simplified the Socratic dialogue approach into 5 steps:

1. Receive 

First, receive what the other person has to say. This means listening to the other person’s premise, view or argument. And remember you must properly listen to be able to do the next step.

2. Reflect

Sum up the person’s viewpoint or argument and reflect it back. Do this by first getting them to clarify and sum up their position and then by paraphrasing or repeating it back to them.

3. Refine

Ask them to provide their evidence. Find out why they are thinking or acting in that way. Discover the facts, beliefs or assumptions that underpin their standpoint. Often the premise will be based on assumptions rather than hard facts. Challenge these assumptions to test their validity. 

Use further questions to uncover the fallacy of any wrong presuppositions. These are often ‘why’ questions. For example: “why do you think that?” Sometimes it can be helpful to construct the ‘why’ question as a ‘what’ question for example: “what makes you think that?” This is because why questions can often feel confrontational.

At times you may need to provide contrary evidence to challenge an assumption but try and structure this as a question too if possible. If there is a cognitive fallacy (a wrong way of thinking) then try and get them to find an exception (or if necessary, provide one) that proves their own theory wrong. Discover and explore this circumstance to discover new, better thinking. In this way, you are refining the basic premise of the discussion.

4. Re-state

Now that you have refined your thinking get them to reformulate and re-state their position. If they see that they had a wrong assumption, get them to adapt or renew their wording and then re-state it.

5. Repeat

Now they have a new viewpoint you can go back to the start of the process. You can assess the new premise and challenge any further wrong assumptions in their thinking. This method becomes a cycle of dialogue. The iterative or dialectic process helps to drill down further and further to get to the core of the issue. 

And that’s it. Simple. The question technique framework is easy to remember; the skill comes in applying it. The challenge, as noted before, is to really listen to the other person and truly commit to coming to a better-shared understanding of the issue.

“I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think” 

Socrates

How to use the Socratic Method video – YouTube

Why people (but particularly leaders) need to ask good questions

As a leader who prefers to lead in a non-directive style (in other words I ask lots of questions) and as a professional coach, I know that seeking understanding is vitally important to success.

That is because success is not just winning the prize or beating the competition. That is short term. Real leadership success is taking people with you, involving them in the journey and creating a future that is better for everyone. As a leader, you might have a fabulous vision of that better future but if you want to get there you need to take people with you. 

Whoever you are, leader or not, you should want to embrace the diversity of thought others bring in order to learn, as well as to achieve your life goals. You will also want to unblock any negativity in relationships that you have. This means you need to develop an understanding and apply empathy. Remember:

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” 

Socrates

Therefore, seek understanding. Seek knowledge. Have productive dialogue. Learn. Progress.

This is why I have found asking questions so powerful and the Socratic method so useful. The father of philosophy gives us the structure, all we need to bring is the right attitude. 

So, next time you feel your argument becoming a polarised debate, remember the Socratic method and have a truly productive exchange of ideas.

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