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Group Facilitation

Philosophers work with groups mainly in two kinds of ways: informally, and formally.

Informal facilitation usually takes place in a Cafe-Philo, or Philosopher's Forum. All the rage in Europe, they are now spreading across North America. Every couple of weeks or so, people gather in a local bookstore or cafe, and take part in a public discussion moderated by a philosopher. It's not a philosophy lecture: the facilitator or moderator merely tries to maintain the discussion on a philosophical footing. Sometimes a particular topic is chosen in advance, and sometimes topics are proposed on the spot. Either way, the group pursues what it wants. Typical topics range from "What is education?" or "Should human beings be cloned?" to "Is America a tolerant society?" or "Is God a woman?"

These informal public discussions are very lively and interesting. People from all walks of life exchange all points of view. Participants have to think for themselves, defend their opinions, and challenge the opinions of others. There is bound to be passionnate disagreement, but there is also attentiveness and civility.

Cafe-Philos, or Philosopher's Forums, serve a very important purpose. In our age of increasingly mindless sloganeering, they provide a public forum for an open, examined and candid exchange of views. You don't get much of that on radio or TV, or even in the universities these days. It's the kind of thing Socrates and his friends used to practice in the Athenian agora. The ancient Greeks called it "love of wisdom, or "Philosophy."

Formal facilitation usually takes place with small groups of 5-10 people, who engage in an activity called "Socratic Dialogue." This is not the stuff that Plato recorded; it's a method developed by the 20th-century German philosopher Leonard Nelson. By following this method under the guidance of a trained facilitator, a group of ordinary but thoughtul people can answer a question like "What is Love?", or "What is Liberty?", or "What is Hope?" It usually takes a couple of days to arrive at an answer. It's an amazing process--an exercise in living, breathing philosophy.

Any group of people willing to be real philosophers for a weekend can experience a Socratic Dialogue. You can find a trained facilitator through the APPA.

If you want to learn more about Socratic Dialogue right now, there's an expanded and fairly technical description below.

About Socratic Dialogue

1. What is a Socratic Dialogue?
2. The Method of the Dialogue
3. The Structure of the Dialogue
4. How to Prepare for a Dialogue

1. What is a Socratic Dialogue?

Socratic dialogue is a formal method by which a small group (5-10 people), guided by a trained facilitator, finds a precise answer to a universal question (e.g. "What is happiness?", "What is integrity?", "Can conflict be fruitful?", etc.). Socratic dialogue is not to be confused with the so-called Socratic method, developed in Plato's writings, by which Socrates often helped people discover contradictions in their attempted definitions of universals. By contrast, Socratic dialogue helps a group to discover what something is, as opposed to what it isn't. Since both Socrates and Plato believed that ordinary people can understand and articulate the essence of a universal, the name "Socratic dialogue" is not inappropriate, only a bit confusing at first blush.

While the practice of formal Socratic dialogue has its metaphysical roots in Plato, its methodological origins are recent. They are found in the twentieth-century works of Leonard Nelson, a German philosopher not widely translated into English. Nelson spelled out the possibilities for this practice, and a subsequent generation of German and Dutch practitioners brought the exercise to fruition. It is, above all, an empirical activity. The Dutch learned it from the Germans, and adapted it to their particular ethos. We Americans have learned it from the Dutch, and are adapting it to ours.

In Germany, people literally go on retreat every summer and during holiday breaks, to engage in Socratic dialogues that last from one to two weeks. The rules governing German Socratic dialogue are numerous and complex, and can take a very long time to master. These rules have been developed empirically, and as such are neither singular nor unique. Different styles of Socratic dialogue use different sets of rules. All styles lay claim to efficacy, albeit by differing routes. As empirical rule development and modification are ongoing, there is a corresponding literature and meta-discussion at the systemic level.

In the Netherlands, there is much less emphasis on systemic complexity, and much more on practical simplicity. Thus the Dutch have "boiled down" the German method of Socratic dialogue, and are able to complete a successful dialogue in one or two days (as opposed to weeks). The rules and guidelines governing the dialogue are accordingly reduced, without in any way compromising the efficacy of the process. On the contrary: by observing a minimalist set of effective rules, one clearly illuminates the path to the dialogue's successful completion, and one more swiftly and surely traverses that path.

Moreover, the Dutch have even further abbreviated their own reduced form of Socratic dialogue, in order to implement some of its salient aspects in public and private sector organizations. Again, this further abbreviated form has far-reaching applications in Anglo-America.

2. The Method of the Dialogue

The method of the Socratic dialogue is as rewarding as its goal. It involves group decision-making by consensus, which is distinctly unlike most other modalities of group function. To begin with, since the Socratic dialogue is neither a debate nor any other kind of competition, there are no winners and losers. While the group as a whole will either succeed or fail to reach the conclusion of the dialogue in the allotted time, every stage in that process is either attained by consensus, or not attained at all. No stage of the dialogue is itself subject to a temporal constraint-thus every relevant question, doubt, insight, observation or objection offered by a participant is considered by the group as a whole, until everyone is satisfied by the deliberation.

The method of decision-making by consensus stands in obvious and sharp contrast to other group modalities, whose failings are abundantly clear to all who labor under their imperfections. A debate may serve to exercise quick wit, rhetorical skill and persuasive power, but the debaters resolve nothing in substantive terms. A ballot-box may serve to measure the opinion of a majority, but the voters never touch on the essence of the issues at stake. A hierarchical chain-of-command serves to have orders carried out, but these cannot usually be questioned or discussed. And the bane of academic and political life is surely the committee, a group constituted to make decisions, yet notoriously characterized by divisiveness, acrimony, third-man scenarios, and other unsatisfactory or unwholesome compromises. Small wonder that received methods of group decision-making tend to produce discord rather than accord. They factionalize rather than universalize. Truth is sacrificed to expediency; consensus is dispatched by timekeeping. Such methodologies are deeply flawed, and dissatisfaction with them runs just as deep. By contrast, Socratic dialogue anticipates descensus, and transforms it into consensus.

The method of consensus debars gross imperfections from a Socratic dialogue. The virtues of patience, tolerance, attentiveness, thoughtfulness and civility prevail. There is also time for emotion to ebb and flow, to wax and wane in the context of larger group dynamics. As the participants in a Socratic dialogue engage in its process, they begin to realize that it is neither a debate, nor an election, nor a hierarchy, nor a committee meeting. It is a cooperative search for a universal truth, which will be discovered--if at all--by the group. The closest equivalent to this method is jury deliberation. A jury also strives for consensus, and is (at least in theory) free to deliberate at length. Jury members (again in theory) must entertain and overcome any reasonable doubt before expressing a conviction; so too must participants in a Socratic dialogue, before articulating a universal definition. Yet differences are also plain. No person is on trial in a Socratic dialogue; rather, an impersonal truth is the subject of a quest. The participants are bound by wholly different rules-not rules of law, but rules of rational discourse. The group itself will offer evidence, will decide what evidence it wishes to weigh, and will produce and examine all its witnesses from within. In contrast to the jury, which passively submits to a trial then delivers its verdict, the Socratic dialogue actively produces both the equivalent of a trial and a verdict. The Socratic dialogue is entirely self-contained.

There are three levels (or orders) of discourse in a Socratic dialogue: first, the discourse of the dialogue itself; second, strategic discourse about the direction or shape of the dialogue as it unfolds; third, meta-discourse about the rules governing the dialogue. The facilitator plays no contributory role in the actual first-order discourse; he simply transcribes the proceedings at each stage, according to the prescribed structure (see next section). The facilitator plays a minimal role in second-order strategic discourse; but he may (if asked) offer some suggestions about viable strategies. The facilitator does play a role in third-order meta-dialogue. A meta-dialogue may be requested at any time, by any group member who seeks clarification about a rule or any other matter governing the dialogue as a whole. The facilitator is responsible for answering meta-dialogical questions. The facilitator may also initiate a meta-dialogue at any time, if in his judgement some procedural point requires clarification. Thus the facilitator of a Socratic dialogue is like the conductor of an orchestra: he has no explicit voice in the score, but has a meta-voice in conducting the performance.

Periodically (typically every few hours), a brief meta-dialogue is held, wherein everyone, including the facilitator, offer their impressions of how the dialogue is proceeding.

3. The Structure of the Dialogue

The Socratic dialogue has a very specific symmetric structure, which may be likened to the shape of an hourglass. It is widest at the top and bottom, and narrowest at the waist. One begins at the top, with the universal question under consideration (e.g. "What is integrity"). Each member of the group is then asked to summarize an example from his or her own experience, which purports to embody or otherwise to illustrate the universal in question. The group may freely question each person's example, to further its understanding of that particular experience. Examples should be first-person accounts, closed in time, not too emotional, and as simple as possible. (Even the most simple examples lead to considerable complexity under dialogical analysis.)

The group then chooses one of the examples as the focus of the dialogue. The chosen example becomes the principal vehicle for the process. An example having been chosen, the person who offered it then gives as detailed an account as possible, which is subject at each step to questions by the group, which seeks to elaborate and understand the example in as much detail as necessary. The facilitator transcribes, numbers, and displays each step of the example, so that the group has a written "history" that it can continuously consult.

The group must then determine exactly where in the example the universal is manifest. E.g. If the question is "What is integrity?", then the group must determine where lies the integrity in this example. At what step or steps does it occur? Between or among which steps does it occur?. And so forth.

Following this, the group must decide on a definition of integrity that adequately describes the thing they have located in the example. The consensual articulation of this definition brings the group to the narrow waist of the hourglass. The universal under consideration has now been particularized. This is the mid-point of the conceptual structure (and roughly the mid-point of the temporal structure) of the dialogue. It may require two days of dialogue to reach this point.

From here the dialogue begins to broaden. The working definition is re-applied to each of the other examples, which were not elaborated but which have been summarized, transcribed and displayed. If the definition is truly universal, then it will suit each example; if not, then it must be modified accordingly.

At the final stage, the toward bottom of the hourglass, the group will then offer counter-examples, trying to undermine or falsify their definition. Modifications are again made if necessary; if not, then the group will have succeeded in its quest. At this stage, the minimalist path will have been traversed.

4. How to Prepare for a Dialogue

You need not be a philosopher, or have philosophical qualifications, to participate in a Socratic dialogue. In fact, just the opposite tends to be true. Academic philosophers can be among the least desirable participants in a Socratic dialogue, not only because they are unaccustomed to consensual methods but also because they sometimes suffer from professional conceits. An appealing presupposition of the dialogue is that universal truths are grounded in our particular experiences. The purpose of the dialogue is to tease the universal from the particular. There is never any reference made, nor need there be any reference made, to philosophical literature. The chosen question is answered not by citing what Plato or Nietzsche thought about it, but by discussing what the members of the group experienced of it. We all have experiences, and we can all think for ourselves. Reference to published works is not admissible in a Socratic dialogue; reference to concrete personal experience is what counts and suffices for the purpose.

The Question:

Questions of the form "What is X?" tend to work best. Thus "What is integrity?", "What is happiness?", "What is liberty?", "What is justice?" are all good candidates for a Socratic dialogue. The group is encouraged to select its question beforehand if possible, in consultation with the facilitator if need be.

The Examples:

The question having been chosen, each group member should think of an example from his or her own life which illustrates or embodies the sought-after universal. Again, a viable example will have the following properties. It should be closed in time-that is, its ramifications should have settled. It should not be too emotional--otherwise, reasoned discourse may be imperilled. It should be as brief and simple as possible--even the briefest and simplest example becomes subject to enormous dialogical complexity. It should be a first-person example, about which the exemplar is willing to answer detailed questions posed by the group. Participants are encouraged to think of their examples beforehand.

The General Rules:

While the facilitator is responsible for guiding the group through the dialogue, each participant is asked to abide by the following rules, which if followed conduce to a rewarding experience.

1. Think for yourself.
2. Express your doubts.
3. Be attentive to others.
4. Refrain from monologues.
5. Ask no hypothetical questions.
6. Make no references to published works.
7. Strive for consensus.


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