Being Socrates

Being Socrates

How to facilitate constructively.

What on earth are you on about?

It is safe to say that I spend the majority of my time facilitating. Whether this be an ABC workshop, training, diagnosing problems in programmes, focus groups… you name it. I also spend a chunk of time training others to facilitate: whether this be my own MEL team or my mentees, or other organisations such as EPIC in DFID or NATO teams.

This list is not meant to be a brag, but just an illustration of the fact that facilitating should be a large portion of a good MEL adviser’s time if they’re engaging in modern and participatory methods; MEL advisers are not meant to be locked away in ivory towers (though I shall leave that particular rant for you to read in this blog). As such, knowing how to do so constructively in crucial.

I always differentiate between being Socrates and being a Troll. These are very different characters with different purposes, and more often than not the former is what you need. Below is differentiation between these and why you may need a more Socratic approach.

Character 1: The Troll

The Troll is a controversial character. Trolls pull apart ideas and stir up trouble.

As such, a Troll facilitator is one who is pulling apart and challenging ideas and concepts until a group can sufficiently contradict them or abandon the idea.

They use targeted questions, often digging into things said and drawing on personal experience and knowledge to test the validity and soundness of the concept in question. Trolls often believe themselves to be highly knowledgeable and so should the Troll facilitator. Your role is to draw on your expertise or ability to challenge to ensure a programme team have learned from something, or have thought an idea all the way through. This is crucial for learning exercises, strategy testing, prosecuting in a Contribution Court and other such learning-focused sessions that have evidence and material to work through.

This kind of facilitation need not be cruel, it can be done very gently. It is valuable when deployed effectively as it can nudge an embarrassed team to critically examine what went wrong, or support a team to weigh up risks of a new strategy. However, bear in mind the willingness of a team to learn or be challenged before taking on this kind of role.

Character 2: Socrates

Socrates is a more placid character. Socrates’ role in the Platonic Dialogues has been to unify a group around a definition for a collectively identified concept, following some carefully managed debate.

As such, a Socratic facilitator is someone who plays a unifying role. They seek to constructively work with a group and build towards agreement on something collectively identified as important.

They use open-ended questions, avoiding interjecting personal opinion or beliefs that might take away from those in the room. Remember: Socrates claimed to know nothing, and so should the Socratic facilitator. Your role is not to be the expert in the room. Instead it is to be a wise conductor of a conversation or exercise, building on the expertise of your participants until agreement is reached. This is crucial for constructive exercises like building a Theory of Change, an Actor-Based Change Framework, Most Significant Change, and similar. In fact, the Socratic facilitator role is crucial to most participatory approaches (but not all). By taking on this role you will get the best out of a team, especially when trying to build something.

This kind of facilitation doesn’t need to be constantly placid, you can absolutely hold your ground if you feel the group aren’t getting there, and interject if disagreement is too stark. When done well, it is valuable in helping insecure or diverse groups come to agreement around how to proceed, or to help a group express thoughts and feelings about a situation. However, bear in mind strong personalities in the room who may dominate, and be prepared to adjust if you are finding a group isn’t engaged.

Facilitating a large group brings nuanced challenges

Trolls come with a bit of a health warning, unlike the rather grumpy but helpful Tomtar here in Sweden.

Socrates was beloved to his students and Symposium attendees, engaging with all to stir debate to agreement, but was by no means the expert in the room.

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