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Wednesday, 14 March 2012 09:40

Debate: Lessons from Socrates on Empowering your Team at Work and at Home

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Over 2,500 years ago, Socrates demonstrated a way by which teachers, employers and parents could instruct and empower their students, employees and children at the same time.

The Socratic method of teaching requires debate. It forces both student and teacher to back up their hypotheses with supporting evidence, and trains the mind to search for inconsistencies. It demands much more in-depth thinking than the “instruction and regurgitation” method popular in schools today. It does not require that the teacher and student disagree: indeed the teacher will often take the opposing position in a debate to help the student develop a more firm sense of her point of view. 

The benefits of applying this method in business are obvious. When we employ it in parenting, we are showing our kids that we believe our point of view can stand on its merits, not just our authority. This becomes increasingly important as our children grow older.

In the spring of Persephone’s junior year of high school, she had a boyfriend whom I’ll call Troy. Troy was not a bad kid, but he was not particularly motivated. He was a couple of years older than my daughter, and was taking a few classes at the local community college while working. By my evaluation, his choices in life had been consistently less than ideal. Needless to say, I was not thrilled with the relationship. Persephone was not quite an adult; however, I knew that insisting that she end the relationship would do no good. I also knew she was not anxious to leave him to go away to college and that their attachment to each other might become a real obstacle to Persephone’s future success. I pondered all this on a daily basis while saying very little.

One morning, after all her college applications had been submitted, Persephone approached me tentatively. “Dad,” she said, “I think I want to take a year off before going to college.” “Why?” I asked.  “Well, I’m just really stressed out with my work at school. I feel like I need a break from being a full-time student.” I knew she just didn’t want to leave Troy behind, but I did not say this.  “Persephone,” I answered, “I think that’s a marvelous idea. This is probably the only time in your life when you can take a year off without worrying about it.” I said nothing more, observing that she was surprised by my response.  “OK,” she continued. “I was thinking that I would take a few classes at community college and work part-time in retail.”  “I see,” I replied. “But, that’s not really an option for a year off. This is a wonderful opportunity for expanding your horizons by serving others. I propose you decide between joining the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps.”  She was stunned. She looked at me as if I had grown a second head!

When she protested, we entered a brief discussion of the merits of her plan versus mine. She could not say that I was being inflexible, because I fully supported her idea of taking a year off.  She was forced to defend her plan against a better one, instead of preserving her right to forgo college for a year.  In the end, she went off to her four-year institution quite happily, leaving Troy behind.

Now, I am fairly certain if I had just ordered Persephone off to college without listening to her reasons for wanting a break, she would have found a way to rebel. Certainly, she might have complied with my wishes, but her heart would have been eager to be rid of my authority and influence at the first opportunity. On the other hand, if I had allowed her to waste a year of her life with a boy going nowhere, I would have set her up for innumerable further mistakes.

The Socratic method of debate and instruction helps build a long lasting relationship with your child. It teaches them to support their beliefs with evidence, as well as thoughtfully consider the evidence presented by others. We need to remember that our kids will not always have to listen to us: active debates and discussions can help them want to listen to us. Often these kinds of discussions, as long as we remember to be mature and controlled, will help us find common ground even in a seemingly insurmountable disagreement.  And like you, I have frequently experienced the benefits of applying this method at the office.

The fact is that most teenagers know when they are being ridiculous. They often want to test the waters to see if we will call them out. I’m happy to say that Persephone and I have laughed many times about her “year off” proposal, now that it is far behind us.

This is my opinion.  It worked for me and it can work for you.  You just have to try it!


Chris Efessiou

About Chris Efessiou:  Chris Efessiou is an entrepreneur, business leader, educator, mentor, international speaker, radio show host, and best-selling author of CDO Chief Daddy Officer: The Business of Fatherhood  based on his own experience from raising his daughter as a single dad by applying his business knowledge to the business of parenting.  Listen to Chris’s weekly Radio Show Straight Up With Chris:  Real Talk on Business and Parenthood on Voice America Radio.  You may connect with Chris on Facebook, follow on Twitter and visit