, , , , ,

The existing Socrates Cafe format works well and creates exciting discussions most of the time. There are some small procedural problems for which I have some suggestions that might improve the flow and help everyone have the feeling of easy inclusiveness in the discussions.

One of the first things to happen in Socrates Cafe type discussions is the selection of a topic. There presently exists a working procedure in which each person is asked to verbally suggest a topic based on something that they have thought about. The moderator writes these suggestions down, and after each person has had a chance to have their question added to the list, the moderator reads them two times in order. On the first reading each person holds up their hand for every topic they would like to discuss. Generally there are between five and twenty topics and the moderator keeps track of the votes and chooses the top two or three or four if they are close in total votes and then there is a second vote. In this vote each person is encouraged to vote for only one topic. There is usually a clear winner, but if there isn’t a third vote is taken to break the tie.

The person whose topic has been chosen is given a minute or two to explain and define the topic as they understood it and then a general discussion begins that tries to clarify the assumptions and hone into the essence of the topic. These rules are also refined and work quite well, but I want to make some comments and suggestions for discussion by the group which would apply even to this opening procedure.

The original questions could be written down on a standard 3″x5” card which could be placed with a pencil at each potential seating location, so that as each person arrived for the meeting they could begin thinking about the topic they would like to discuss and hone it a bit. That would be better than extemporaneous statements, as is now done, because it would limit the problem of each person individually stumbling around, in front of an audience, trying to refine what they are thinking about. That is embarrassing to most people. When the questions are presented they could either be read by the proposing person, or anonymously by the moderator. This procedure would keep this part of the meeting more focused, because sometimes people will ramble on for a long time trying to define what they are thinking about. If all the carded questions were read, as before, and the first vote limiting the topics to a very few as before, then those selected questions could be further presented by each of the proposers. Thus, the entire group wouldn’t use a lot of time listening to something which won’t bring about a general discussion, but the most likely questions would get a bit of clarification and an introduction. There has been a problem with too many questions being discussed too long in this early phase. It is difficult because these questions are generally discouraged from being discussed by the group, because at that time we are merely trying to find a topic and not discuss the topic. It becomes confusing whether this phase is subject finding or subject analyzing.

Over the months of meetings I think it could be fairly said that every one of the topics turned into a wonderful discussion, and probably every topic rejected would also have become interesting, because the rules of the Socrates Cafe tend to generate just the right amount of controversy and structure. Which brings me to another problem that all social groups have: how to allocate floor time in a fair and balanced way to the various people who want to speak. This is a serious problem for the moderator because some people talk non-stop and endlessly, others are willing to interrupt when any thought enters their head, and others tend to be quiet even when they have the perfect comment. The moderator thus has a very difficult job of trying to keep the process firm, fair and balanced. Fortunately our group has an excellent moderator, who has done a superb job of bringing out the best in everyone, and is trying to teach other people the art of moderating. The goal is to have many experienced moderators who have the capacity to conduct productive meetings and as members of the meeting have some empathy for the problems of the moderator.

A key problem is giving every person the opportunity to express their thoughts. That requires giving each person the floor for long enough for them to get the essence of their thought heard both in breadth and depth, but not so long as to become repetitive and boring to the other members of the meeting. Some thoughts take only a few seconds to express, and this is especially true when they are direct additions to the current speaker’s thoughts, but other ideas take longer because they require some development of background information. Some people speak with passion, others with bland emotions, and others with noodling about of ideas closely surrounding the basic idea. Some people’s natural tendency is to explore not the central idea but the extensions and peripheries of the central concepts. Everyone has the problem of others being stimulated by one of their ideas and wanting to interrupt with a comment, and I suspect it is the person with the most unusual ideas who has the greatest problem with interruptions. A boring idea creates few interruptions, but a vibrant, unusual idea will spark disbelief, denials and counter-arguments. Thus it seems to me that a person with a tedious idea should be given less time to express it than one with a new idea. An idea that is common and well known will rarely spring forth with exciting revelations, but a truly new idea often will.

The facilitator must make these determinations to keep the flow going by encouraging those people to speak up who can contribute to the flow, and perhaps even more important, to somehow impede those speakers who are lowering the level of interest without offending them. It is a delicate job, and one which I dislike having to do myself, because I believe that the cruelest thing one person can do to another is to convince them they are not interesting.

Kindness is helping another person to find their way forward. Kindness to a group is helping it find its way forward and sometimes that requires the facilitator to manifest an unkindness towards an individual. It is an inherent conflict of interest,  and it requires a person or the group being shut down to realize they will benefit more as an individual or as a group by the whole group finding its way forward. It is a delicate arrangement. I stand in awe of those people who are skilled at doing it well. Personally I realize that I lack the talent and tact for the job and perhaps that is why I have enjoyed writing blogs. I get the chance to express myself and when I do make blunders I have only myself to worry about. Sometimes that works.