Four conversational virtues
How do you introduce a Socratic Dialogue? What must you say about the background, the steps, the rules...? With which words do you set the right tone?
Over the course of the years I have tried out many variations. That an introduction is required is, to me, beyond dispute. People who gather for the first time do not know what to expect. They all have their own ideas about what a conversation entails. It is advisable to manage their expectations. In addition, a clear introduction of objectives and approach gives you as facilitator something to go by when you have to steer the participants back in the right direction. In one way or the other you need to agree a 'contract'. But which words you choose will dependent on, for example, the time available and the participants' backgrounds (yes or no to academic jargon?).
Recently I limited my introduction to writing down four conversational virtues and I was pleased with the outcome. As title I wrote down An exploring conversation followed by:
- Frankness- Curiosity - Concreteness - Brevity
I explained these four ideas as follows.
In order to make our conversation a good exploring conversation, your frankness is necessary. Give us your opinion, doubt, or intuition without being afraid that others will pin you down. Every expression is tentative and may change in the course of our conversation. However tentative, it is always valuable. For without expressions we will have nothing to explore.
Secondly, curiosity is important; curiosity about yourself and about others. About yourself, because sometimes you may be surprised by the words which come out of your mouth: "What did I just say? What do I really mean? Is that right?" And the same curiosity about others: "What do you mean, exactly? What are you seeing that I am not? Are you sure about that?" Bringing your curiosity to the table and allowing it of others helps to better understand what we, together, think we understand.
Concreteness: During this exploration we will focus on concrete experiences drawn from our own lives; events in which the question we are exploring played arole. This ensures that we know what we are talking about, as we have had the experience. It allows us to avoid abstract discussions and speaking in generalities. In addition to helps others to understand you when you can illustrate your statements with everyday examples.
Finally: brevity. In order to ensure that we harness all available brainpower it is important that each individual have his say. In order to achieve that, we must keep our statements brief. Our time is limited. Time we claim for ourselves is at the expense of others and their time to contribute. Brevity forces you to focus on the heart of the matter. It helps you to consider carefully what you really want to ask or what you really wish to add to what has already been said.
During the dialogue I was able to referback to these virtues whenever someone was too long-winded, when someone hesitated to contribute something, when someone brushed aside expressed reservations about statements made or when someone began to refer to published reports. This helped to introduce greater precision and depth into the exploration.
In addition to these virtues I had two additional instruments at my disposal: an initial question and a final statement (each person writing down a closing agreement). To begin with the second: I gave the eight participants the task of making notes during the conversation and to polish these notes into a final statement at the end of the conversation. I was able to remind participants of this assignment at regular intervals, thereby slowing down the event and creating time for silence and reflection. The initial question served as my compass during the unpredictable turns the conversation sometimes took. Each participant, young and old, was asked to express a personal experience that related directly to the initial question:
Do members of the age group between 50 and 70 find themselves in a transition, as has been maintained?
(This question was formulated while preparing, together with the client 'Carefree Home' (Zorgelooshuis). This is an initiative of several organisations for the elderly. In addition to having a website with an active forum they wished to organise lively discussions in the field, supporting the wish of those who want to stay living at home for longer.)
After the introduction of the experience, parts of the initial question were answered by the person who introduced it, then assisted by others:
- What is the transition here?
- With words are you able to describe it?
- Why do you call it a transition, rather than, for example, a change?
- Is this only about a significant personal change or about something, which acts as a symbol for a transition in which this age group finds itself?
By repeatedly returning to the initial question the group remained clearly focused. By examining each participant's experiences everyone remained involved and a rich perspective on the issue developed.
After I had read a poem everyone was given the opportunity to write closing motto: his or her conclusion as drawn from the discussion. Here is a selection:
"Life becomes both easy and difficult. You don't know which way it is going to turn."
"The individual who becomes aware of the choices which must be made will harvest the most enjoyment."
"The fear of what will come; the urge not to be left standing empty-handed."
"About older people and things that have passed. There are just as many transitions as people, young and old. There are at least as many reasons not to change (and not to leave the house which has become too large)."