Socrates was born in 470 BCE, and is widely considered the founder of Western philosophy. A testatment to his genius is that his advice for influencing others has relevance centuries after his death. Even though Socrates is most known as a philosopher, the Socratic Method is the basis for some of the best traditions of debate, education, politics, and social discourse. I say the best traditions because his approach is not as widely used as it should be, to our detriment. To be fair, by its creator’s own admission, the Socratic Method is too complex to apply to all situations, but its tenets are a good reminder about how to resolve disagreement. Read on and reflect, as I have, on how well you follow his steps toward positive influence.
Tenet #1 Admit that you don’t have the answer
Even though Socrates easily qualifies as a genius, he never claimed to have the answer to any debate. In fact, his opening statements included, “I certainly do not have the answer, but perhaps we can find it together.” The ability to set asides one’s ego and fold others’ points of view into the discussion is a masterful use of influence. Not only because the method avoids useless head-butting, but because it ensures that any conclusion resulting from the discussion will be followed without resistance. While conflicts may be resolved in the moment, they are often nullified by inaction or hesitance later. Admitting that you don’t have all the answers is also a great way to build trust; the foundation to good debate.
Tenet #2 Ask questions that foster agreement
While watching a news reporter interview supporters of a certain political candidate, whenever the supporters stated what they liked about their candidate, the reporter would respond with a counter-arguement. “That isn’t true because on April 12th of last year, your candidate said…” This is a common tactic of influence, but also highly ineffective. This approach never results in the other person saying, “Wow, you are right. My thinking has been wrong all along.” Quite the opposite, they dig their heels in even further. Rather than reach common ground, you have created an entrenched opponent.
Socrates rarely made declarative statements. Instead, he would ask questions designed to clarify positions and find common ground. “I understand your position. In such a case, would you agree that…?” When Socrates asked, “Would you agree…?” it was never an attempt to corner the other person or challenge their opinion. If you follow Tenet #1, you don’t claim to have the answer in the first place. It is impossible to trap someone if you are both seeking the truth together. Asking questions is the best path toward eventual agreement.
Tenet #3 Root out inconsistencies
The ultimate goal of the Socratic Method was not to determine a winner and loser, it was to continually seek the truth. But Socrates also acknowledged that the real truth of any debate is likely out of reach. The real goal was to create an environment of healthy conversation so that the search for truth was productive. To achieve this, Socrates sought to expose inconsistencies in reasoning. If two beliefs are contradictory, then the fault lies in our logic. It is our responsibility to set aside our egos and examine our beliefs, not as symbols of our self-worth, but as chess pieces that can always be moved to our advantage. Socrates believed that inconsistencies were not character flaws, but openings to self-examination.
Tenet #4 Debate respectfully
Socrates abhorred personal attacks during debate. He treated everyone with respect, even those with whom he vehemently disagreed. To this point, even when he was charged with corrupting youth by preaching against the state religion, he treated his judges (hundreds of male citizens called to render their verdict) with respect. The great irony is, one of the most influential minds in history could not influence his jurors to his favor, and he was ordered to commit suicide by drinking hemlock.
Can you imagine what debate would be like today if the Socratic Method were our standard? How different would the world of social media be? We certainly don’t have the power to change all of society, or social media, but we do have the ability to raise our skills of influence by using Socrates’ guidelines. Ask questions, seek the truth without claiming to own it, and be nice to each other. And no hemlock!
An expert on influence and an international keynote speaker and trainer, Stevie Ray helps business leaders influence situations toward positive outcomes. He can be reached at www.stevierayspeaks.com