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Walking with Socrates


“We need to improve our communication” — it’s a refrain we hear often in our line of work. Sound familiar? Does your company/department/team have this “communication thing” licked? Probably not.

Of course, “improving communication” is a pretty diffuse phrase. It encompasses everything from “please use the ‘reply all’ function in Outlook judiciously” to “have the courage to hold difficult conversations with your boss” and everything in between. I’d like to narrow the focus here to a very simple process that will greatly improve your ability to hold conversations of value. It’s straightforward (but not easy) and applicable across many kinds of conversations. It’s called the Socratic Walk.

A little background: The Socratic Walk is a play on the Socratic Method, an application of critical thinking named after everyone’s favorite Greek Philosopher, Socrates. One of the most influential of the ancient philosophers, Socrates comes to us through the writings of Plato and specifically The Dialogues, a series of stories in which Socrates questions his interlocutor (fancy name for a conversational partner) and, in so doing, helps clarify the issue at hand.

Here’s the thing: Socrates never expresses an opinion or becomes prescriptive in his approach — his questions serve as a clarifying force for thinking through the problem, challenge or position.

Socratic Walks are based on the Socratic Method. It’s a very complicated process so please read the instructions that follow carefully. One person talks (and walks); the other listens and asks questions. I’ll repeat that: One person talks (and walks) and the other listens and asks questions. That’s it. If you’re not real clear on the process, please reread the last three sentences.

Two things become immediately apparent when you undertake this practice. First, there is huge value for the “talker” in being given the space to think without worrying his/her train of thought will be interrupted. The clarity of the role — to think out loud — frees the mind to explore and not feel rushed to make a point ahead of the inevitable interruption or challenge or tangential remark from the other party.

Second, the “asker” receives equal, if not greater, value. By removing the need to respond, by focusing on the speaker’s content only for the purposes of asking clarifying questions, true active listening results. In the words of Steven Covey, the asker “seeks first to understand.” Listening for the sake of reaching a common framework of understanding, and resisting the common need to insert the ego-self by responding, is a very valuable skill in its own right. And there is no better tool to train the mind in this way than by engaging in the practice of the Socratic Method via the Socratic Walk.

And why the walk? This is where it all comes together. By formalizing the process in a walk, it is easier for each person to drop into their respective roles. Further, thinking out loud and away from the usual environment is very clarifying in and of itself. After all, how often do you sit around and think out loud (without being fitted for a white canvas jacket with wrap around sleeves)? And finally, I suspect all great thinkers are natural walkers. There is something in the rhythm and energy of the activity that fosters deeper, richer, more meaningful thinking.

Solvitur ambulando, as the Romans used to say; the solution comes through walking.

It sounds simple and obvious, and it is… which is why it works. It’s a great way to noodle out problems and train the mind to listen better. Socratic Walks are a practical, useful tool to improve communication between two people. Try it and share your experience with us. We’d love to hear your experiences walking with (and channeling) Socrates.

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