by Darlene Frederick

It’s hard to imagine that we might find wisdom for organizational development in the methods of a Greek philosopher and educator who practiced in 400 B.C. Surely, centuries of evolution in the understanding of human development couldn’t bring us full circle to Socrates – could it?

Quite appropriately, our earliest days as students revolved around memorization of facts; after all, there was an alphabet and numbers to be learned before our young minds could comprehend reading and arithmetic.

As we grew through successive grades of elementary and secondary education, we absorbed more facts in more subjects, collecting a body of knowledge upon which to build skills and develop a personal world view.

Yet, even before the 21st century explosion of information and the vehicles to access it, our adult endeavors called for the one skill that is not contained in books or Wikipedia: critical thinking.

This was the mantra of Socrates as a teacher and philosopher: “I cannot teach anybody anything; I can only make them think.” The Socratic Method, famously borrowed, modified and manipulated by educators through the ages, rests on one primary learning strategy: questions. Likewise, corporate learning in the age of flattened hierarchies, global communities, virtual collaboration and personal accountability calls for facilitation (perhaps) more than instruction.

OK, you’re with me on the value of questions in the learning process, right? But the art of skillful questioning is not so simple. You and I have sat in workshops in which the “interaction” sounds something like this:

“Would someone like to share their experience of a successful coaching situation?

“Thank you, John. Would someone else like to share?”

“Thank you, Mary. Very interesting.”

“All right, let’s go on to our next topic.”

Of course I’m exaggerating – somewhat. Certainly, we also know skilled facilitators who create engaging, productive group learning. How do they do it? By channeling Socrates – asking a question, then a question, and then a question – challenging the individual and his peers to think critically about their initial responses:

“Why was this effective?”

“How did it make you feel?”

“Would you have phrased it differently?”

“Have you had a similar situation when this didn’t work so well?”

“Is this the best approach for every person on your team?”

“What if the employee gets defensive when you say that?”

Is the Socratic Method a spontaneous art or the result of a skillful design?

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