Who is your Socrates in your organization?

by Patrick Willer

The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates didn’t left any writings, but his thoughts left an eternal echo. We know from his students, one of which is Plato, that Socrates challenged and provoked people around him to think for themselves.

More than 2,400 years later, we could use some of Socrates’ thought provoking. Who is your Socrates in your organization?

Think for yourself

Socrates’ motto was, “You have to know yourself before you can say something about yourself or about what you can know.” He asked people questions like:What is Wisdom? What is Brave? What is righteous? — questions that are still very relevant today. Thinking for yourself and challenging the status quo will keep you on the inventing side of business and life.

Socratic dialogue

Socrates had a technique he used to help people think for themselves, which we call the dialectic method of inquiry or the Socratic Dialogue. It would be fantastic if we used the Socratic Dialogue more when we communicate with colleagues and clients. All our technological advancements haven’t helped us to focus on a conversation, digging deeper and asking questions about the true meaning behind our words. Socrates was a master in that.

But why is this so difficult for us? Two aspects that make it hard:

  1. Lack of focus prevents us from asking the right questions. Since we multitask our way through life, our brains have become increasingly strong in tying small pieces of information together. We quickly connect thoughts (of our own) to words we hear. And we quickly conclude we have a full picture — even though it’s impossible to fully understand what somebody else is thinking and trying to convey. A simple example: If a colleague says to you, “Job well done,” you could quickly — and incorrectly — conclude your own vision of your performance as good. You’d better ask follow up questions to your colleague: What do you mean by “well done”? Can you explain further?That way you will discover more about your performance and gain knowledge that you can actually use to your benefit.
  1. Fear prevents us from using the dialectic method, especially fear of making the other person uncomfortable. Asking the why question a couple of times can be both liberating and confrontational at the same time. Asking the wrong way might scare somebody into wondering why you keep asking questions. And even if you do it the right way, you might get to levels people (consciously or unconsciously) have not yet rationalized their thought, which means you enter very private territory, which can be terrifying to others.

The Socratic dialogue is a true skill to master, but it definitely pays off when you are able to reach a deeper rapport with the people around you.

Focus on the youth

One of Socrates most famous quotes is “Know Thyself,” and he was quite adamant to teach this to younger people. By confronting them with questions like “What could be the effect of thinking differently?”  More organizations could use somebody like Socrates to teach young starters how to better balance how things are today and how they should be done tomorrow.

No gossip

Socrates killed gossip quickly. When confronted by a young man with a story on Jona. Socrates asked him three questions: “What you are about to tell me about Jona, do you know for sure know if it’s true?” The young man shook his head. “This story about Jona, will that reflect negatively on Jona?” The young man nodded. “So what is it that you want to share with me?”

No fear

Socrates was fearless in examining life, because he believed that “an unexamined life is not worth living.” In 399 BC Socrates was sentenced to death for not believing in the gods of the state. The poison that killed him also left him a couple of hours with friends. He used that time to talk about the immortal life of the soul, an amazing inspirational belief not corrupted by fear.

Socrates as HR director

Socrates had no fear to ask people “Who is best suited to be on a key position?” From that perspective he would be good fit as Strategic Workforce Planner, making sure the right person is on the right position based on skills and competencies.

Socrates on social media

And what do you think Socrates would do with social media? He may not have written, but he did ask a lot of questions. I’m certain that he would ask us all if we were truly considering what we do and why — even if he only did so in our comment sections on Facebook.

image credit: Ben Crowe

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Patrick WillerPatrick Willer is a Workforce Innovation Consultant and is helping to get the best out of people and technology. He loves to read and write about change, collaboration, innovation and evolution.

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