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Business advice from… Socrates, yes!

Socrates is one of my favorite philosophers. Together with Plato and Aristotle, he formed the founding triumvir of western philosophy. Born in 469 BC, he is famous for his question method.

Today, we still call this method Socratic Questioning. The Socratic Method is a way to get to true knowledge. A part of this method is the fact that he pretended to follow the reasoning of his discussion partner, while he did not agree with his opponent. So, instead of saying that he disagreed (because of e.g. a logical thinking mistake), Socrates kept on asking incisive questions in a disciplined and structured way.

He asked questions to

  • clarify,

  • understand assumptions,

  • seeing the rationale and viewpoints,

  • finding the consequences,

  • coming to correct conclusions.

The answers his opponent gave triggered critical thinking and led to a self-reflection often resulting in a conclusion that the reasoning was wrong (contradictory views).

One of his famous sayings that underpins this method is:

“I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think.”

So, instead of disagreeing or correcting, he helped the other one to discover his/her own mistakes.

What a gentle and powerful way to argue with someone. It is probably the best way to

  • analyse complex ideas,

  • uncover assumptions,

  • understand what we know,

  • find the truth of things,

  • explore concepts and

  • to solve a problem

This 2500 year old method is also one of the techniques I use today for specific coaching topics (with surprising results).

As one of the most influential thinkers ever, Socrates’ way of working has led to a number of philosophical statements and concepts that are still relevant for the business people today (and not only for business people).

Please find hereunder 5 of many pieces of business advice that Socrates could have given you today.

1. Ask more questions

Do this for two reasons: Firstly, it shows that you are fully interested in understanding the other. Summarize and paraphrase and keep on asking till it is clear. Secondly, as described briefly above, it helps to discuss different opinions in a gentle way. Question everything. Include questions about the obvious and your own assumptions. You will be surprised.

2. Set clear definitions

How can we solve problems if we are confused with what we mean by a particular concept or term? A leader, manager or executive cannot work with vague concepts or ostentatious words that are basically meaningless. Clear language must be used to make a good decision. Setting a definition starts with the simple question: “what is this?” The answer to this question is the first part of the definition. In Socrates’ view a definition goes beyond words; it is the nature of the definition that counts. In other words try to see a definition as a true description of the essence of the thing to be defined: Principles as objectivity and fundamentals for knowledge and morality are key. Think about this. It is not easy, but it will make your success stronger.

3. Lifetime learning

Socrates, also called the “prophet of lifelong learning”, argued that human beings are the only imperfect beings in the universe and yet they have the ability to mature into perfection. His quote: “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing” is the message that you must grab every opportunity to learn new things and develop yourself. See your life as an expedition with ongoing learning moments. Learn by reading and studying, and especially by listening to the people around you: your superiors, your colleagues and peers, your direct reports, friends, family and any other person. Look at the response!

4. Generating ideas

Read the following Socrates quote carefully: “Strong minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, weak minds discuss people”. So tell me, do you enjoy spending hours on social media to gossip, meeting with friends to talk about what another people do in daily life? What does that bring you? This strong quote by Socrates suggests that we better focus on ideas how to change and develop. Look around you, really successful people are not interested in gossip. They want to use the information and intelligence to transform ideas into realisation. If you want to be successful and happy in your business (and personal live) you must mind your thoughts and be careful with what you say: focus on ideas.

5. Change

In a world that is constantly in flow, change is an inevitable aspect of business. Especially today where we are facing uncertainty and fear, caused by pandemics, economic downturns and geopolitical changes. Scary? Maybe! While the current ways of working seem good, there might be newer ways that are better. Ways that be more effective, efficient, to develop new ideas and business models. Spend your energy on change to grow. Allow independent thinkers in your organisation that are open for change, who generate ideas and work with growth hackers to enable smooth and natural changes.

THE GOLDEN NUGGET: Start applying the Socratic Method and you will be both more successful and happier.

There are many, many more wise lessons to learn from Socrates and his views on success and happiness.

Please contact me if you would like to get more information or would like to be coached on this.



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