Ancient Wisdom, Modern Conversations

With Dr Christopher Gribbins
Fellow, University of Melbourne’s School of Historical and Philosophical Studies.

What a challenging event! Christopher introduced us to the Socratic Method which is based on the principle that to understand a person’s perspective requires you to understand the deeper concepts driving their thinking. To effect change you must target this deeper level and make it explicit. Using Socrates’ method requires you to guide ideas out of others in an honest and open manner only using questions. Easier said than done!

You start by determining the goal of the conversation e.g. solving a problem or testing an idea or belief, then try to work out the operating concept beneath it. There were “rules” for this workshop that included working in groups of 2-3 people with one playing Socrates and the other(s) playing an “interlocutor”. Socrates had to guide the conversation by asking questions – not engaging in discussion – and adapting questions to the answers provided. Socrates could use his/her own beliefs but wasn’t to express them. The interlocutor(s) had to answer concisely and honestly. Using this method, we had 40 minutes to arrive at a definition of “fairness” by revealing what the Interlocutor(s) really thought. No-one accomplished the task. It felt like we needed days to get there.

So how could this ancient wisdom help modern conversations? It’s really in the principle and some of the methodologies one found oneself using. The idea of trying to understand underlying concepts and beliefs isn’t necessarily new to OD practitioners, so it seemed it was in other “things” that “ancient wisdom” could influence modern conversations.

For me, the first of these is in pursuing an idea or thought to its natural end through open and honest questioning, rather than discussion. How often do we solve problems without getting to the underlying problems? Second was in allowing a response to generate the next question – not new either but, again, how often do we generate the next piece of conversation because we aren’t listening to what was just said?

Third was to follow the conversation for its own sake and not be wedded to a position. This was really interesting because as Interlocutor one felt both defensive and challenged while perceiving Socrates as assertive, if not aggressive. In discussion later we wondered why that was the case despite knowing that all we were trying to do was jointly work together to define fairness. Why were we experiencing defensiveness when there was nothing really at stake? This experience posed more questions than we had time to answer, yet they are definitely questions worth exploring.

What we did find was that by all parties being curious, honest, open with a shared purpose and interest in “thou” rather than “I” gave us a better chance of reaching our goal. We just needed more time!

If the Socratic Method is of interest to you Christopher runs the Melbourne University’s Classics Summer School for the public each January as well as regularly delivering a course on “How to Argue Like Socrates” at the Hellenic Museum – more information is available here.

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