Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Socratic Method in the Modern Age

What has changed since Socrates first developed the method of debate known as "The Socratic Method"?  Are we more or less patient as a society?  Are we more or less narcissistic?  Do we even talk face to face with each other at length?  Are people more or less willing to engage in debate?  Much has changed in 2,400 years, but the Socratic Method can still be an incredibly useful tool in business and in life.

Benjamin Franklin (my hero) first turned me on to the Socratic Method of debate, finding great joy in frustrating his friends with continually asking questions to almost any debate posed.  However, even in Ben Franklin's times, I believe people were more patient, less narcissistic, and engaged in Face-to-face debate far more often.

Here is Harlan's revised Socratic Method for 2010, based on real world examples:

  1. Find something worth debating.  -   This can be the hardest step.  Time is so precious in our narcissistic fast-paced society, and not everything should be debated.
  2. Find someone worth debating   -   If the participant is not willing to explore the topic in an open debate forum, and relegate the results to logics fine conclusion, then you are wasting your time.  NOTE: They do not have to be willing to engage in Socratic Method.  Only that they are open to debate and change.
  3. Set aside a preset time period (at least 30-minutes).   -   Unlike the days of Socrates, we cannot simply cavort on one topic for an entire day.  Our MTV minds are simply not accustomed to such concentration.  A preset time period is not so that you can stop when the time is up... it is a minimum for how long you should explore.  The temptation is to concede the point after the first hole in logic.  This would be a gross error on both parties, regardless of which side you are arguing.
  4. Begin with a statement  -  just like normal Socratic method, we must choose sides... pick a side and explore with questions... its that easy!
  5. Ask any question but "Why"  -  Why questions are an example of opinion questions.  In the Socratic method we must explore facts, logic, and assumptions (and foundations of all these in society, prejudice, culture, etc.).  Avoid Why type questions whenever possible.  It is OKAY if you are the only one asking questions.  If you are the only one asking questions, you must ask on behalf of BOTH SIDES of the debate.
  6. End with 2 statements  -   no-one likes to feel as though time was wasted.  When the time is up (or when you both agree to stop), both parties should make a summary statement to capture how far (or how close) both parties have come along the path to enlightenment and truth.

Here are some real-world examples I've recently engaged in:
  1. Sales Call.  I often have sales calls and sales meetings.. and based on one of my favorite sales books, I try hard to use questions to help sell.  The hardest part was "opening with a statement", and then being willing to be "moved from my own position".  Here is what worked:
    • Statement: "You need Karmaback to help your company grow."
    • Sample Questions: "Does your company want to grow?", "Do you know what Karmaback is?" "Do you believe Karmaback can do what it says?", etc.
    • Closing Statements:  "COMPANYX needs to grow, and Karmaback can help."  vs.  "COMPANYX needs to grow, and has bigger problems than what Karmaback can solve"
    • My openness...  In order for this debate to work, I (as the salesman) had to be open to change... I had to be open to the fact that maybe MY STATEMENT was false.
  2. Family Dispute. My kids are great test subjects.  They are active, willing, and can easily handle 30-minutes.... not.  (10-minutes was the best I could do.  More would have been better)


    • Statement: "You need to learn to throw the football like a pro."
    • Sample Questions: "Do you like football?" "Do you know what football is?" "Do you know what a pro is?" "Can one learn to throw a football?"  "Can one learn to throw like a pro?"  "Which pro?"  "What is a need?" 
    • Closing Statements:  "I want you to learn to throw a football so I can play with you and get some exercise."  vs.  "Papa wants me to learn to throw a football"
    • Kids: Sometimes, it's good enough to get to the "intention" of the idea... 

In almost every case I've used the Socratic method, it has been helpful.. it usually changes "me" more than "them".  And this is not a bad thing!  

The other magical thing.  Asking, and being open to being wrong, often wins business!


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