Socratic what now?
In our practice we often need to host constructive conversations with groups where there might be confusion, uncertainty, or worrisome issues (i.e. change) as well as big personalities, and potentially high emotions (i.e. trust issues). And if we're honest, too many "discussions" involved few people (i.e. the experts) doing most of the talking. Better ideas and learning have been linked to more "dialogic" learning environments where participants direct the conversation. One such approach, called Socratic Circles, can be a powerful technique to create a safe space for group dialogue among colleagues or with public groups that engages participants, supports learning, encourages respectful exchanges, and allows all parties to listen as well as be heard in an equitable way.
"The unexamined life is not worth living." — Socrates
Why would I use Socratic Circles?
Socratic Circles is well suited to situations when a group (ideally 20+ people) of diverse needs or perspectives want to explore a topic or issue via open, honest, and meaningful discussion without the formal atmosphere of a traditional meeting or lecture. This approach is especially effective when there is potential discord or if participants don’t necessarily know each other well. Socratic Circles is also useful when tackling complex topics which are important to participants but may not necessarily require immediate resolution, consensus, or a fixed outcome.
The Classical Greek philosopher Socrates (470–399 BC) believed the answers to all human questions reside within us and that through disciplined conversation we can discover ultimate truth. Socratic Circles are based on some of his teaching surrounding "constructivist strategy" in which participants engage in a conversation to collectively seek a deeper understanding of complex ideas.
As an alternative to group discussion formats often used in community and stakeholder engagement (eg. circle discussion or breakout formats like World Cafe), Socratic Circles can result in enhanced creativity, powerful thinking, a fullness to dialogue, and take conversations to a deeper level as its structure encourages participation and ownership as the group itself essentially leads and directs the dialogue.
Socratic Circles can be a safe and respectful place for emotional conversations without needing to be as “new age” as the Peacemaking Circles used in restorative justice with a centrepiece, talking piece, agreements, opening/check-out ceremonies, and a bell/chime although they are essentially compatible if the situation feels appropriate.
One additional trick we apply when hosting Socratic Circles is "conversation mapping". Without explanation, the facilitator draws a circle and marks the location of participants. Standing quietly within sight of all participants, they then trace the “web” of conversation as the group talks, silently documenting the pattern and energy of the conversation, encouraging equal contributions between participants as they begin to notice the patterns and flow of dialogue. Simultaneously a helper harvests the themes and big ideas that emerge during the conversation while keeping track of time.
After both circles have had a chance to engage in dialogue, it can be powerful to pause and reflect on the experience, inviting all participants to share. This can be an important moment for those who did not have much to say initially to speak up, and a moment where anyone can identify new ideas that came up for them or how the experience may have enhanced their understanding or expanded their thinking.
“Wisdom begins in wonder.” — Socrates
How does it work?
- Before hosting a Socratic Circle, ensure participants are informed of the topic and given time to consider the issues at hand. You can even challenge them to bring along a few of their ideas that they might like to contribute as prompts to the conversation.
- In a spacious room, divide participants into two concentric circles on chairs with no table in the middle (although a centrepiece can be a meaningful symbol). Everyone should have an unobstructed view of everyone else and any notes posted to the walls for reference.
- Set the stage for the conversation by sharing a previously determined prompt/challenge question to spark thinking or issues to be discussed and create some basic ground rules for participants, explaining how the process will work, acknowledging some of the challenging issues that may be raised.
- Begin with a few moments of silence, then start the conversation with only participants sitting in the inner circle allowed to speak. Instruct the outer circle to remain silent and participate by listening, watching for insights, similarities or meaning (they may jot down notes they wish).
- The facilitator is not an active participant in the conversation and remains silent throughout unless things get disrespectful or off track. The conversation should be organic and led by the group.
- Often times there are lulls in conversation where no one is speaking. Silence is healthy. Let participants sit in silence and reflect and the conversation will take a deeper turn when it starts again.
- Using a flip chart, a recorder harvests key ideas, themes, and content. Meanwhile, using another flip chart and without explanation, the host facilitator tracks the conversation by drawing a circle, identifying seating positions of each participant and tracing a line from each speaker to the next as the dialogue progresses. This technique creates ambient awareness among participants of who might be dominating the conversation and who isn’t participating. At the break, the facilitator directs participants’ attention to the tracking diagram as a concrete expression of the conversation.
- After 15–30 minutes (depending on group size, conversation flow, allotted time, and energy in the room) interrupt the conversation (I like to use a bell or a chime) and ask the inner to move to the outer circle to listen, with those from the outer circle taking seats in the inside circle. Begin the conversation again using the same challenge question or issues.
- After the second session of dialogue, the facilitator can lead an open discussion about the process and the content, review the notes the recorder harvested, and pose questions like “What stood out for you? Any new ideas?” or "How did this discussion change your understanding of this situation?" or even "How did this experience make you feel?" By affording everyone the opportunity to speak up in conclusion, often a moment of "Where to from here?" arises, potentially resulting in consensus building and/or priority actions or the need for further discussion on key issues.
Anything else I should consider or plan for?
- The venue needs to be a large enough open space for two concentric circles, and enough chairs for one per person. Best also to be quiet enough to limit the amount of distracting noises.
- The timing depends on the size of the group and complexity of the issues to be discussed, but 45–75 minutes is a good guide.
- The number of participants suitable for a healthy discussion is ideally between 20–40 people, although it can be done with more by having a series of concentric circles. For example, two or three sets of an inner and outer circle. Diversity of people and views are recommended in each circle to ensure balanced dialogue and exchange of ideas.
- Make sure you have someone harvesting content during discussions. This is a terrific situation to hire a graphic recorder to help visually capture the themes and big ideas that bubble up.
- This can be an emotional sharing experience for some, so don’t underestimate how important the issues are to participants, not the power of this technique. Don’t rush it.
HCMA used this technique during public engagement meetings with stakeholder groups about the future of a community’s local aquatic and community centre facilities where emotions were high and various stakeholder groups had differing needs and agendas. Our goals for this meeting were to check assumptions and gain a deeper understanding of the complexity and impacts of the issue on all citizens and to identify opportunities for collective action going forward.
People from various stakeholder groups arrived with differing experiences, perspectives, and needs so we employed Socratic Circles as a technique to allow people to express themselves openly in a safe space, embrace and respect their emotion, and help them understand each other, their differences and commonalities. Through sharing and conversation connections were made that allowed participants to realize and respect each other’s unique situations and needs while expressing their own. The feedback and ideas generated using this technique were profound and numerous participants thanked us for facilitating in this fashion (we even got a couple thank you emails!).