excuses socrates

Excuses, Excuses: Socrates and Un-Knowing

This deflection is named after the oft-called “father of western philosophy,” who was killed for how he used not-knowing and powerful questions to expose flaws in people’s perception, reasoning, and values. It won’t surprise you that he’s one of my heroes, and certainly one of my teachers.

After you learn to use the Socratic Method, the next most important lesson you learn is when not to use it. It has an appropriate time and place, and when misused can be destructive, especially to oneself.

Manager: “I heard there were some bumps in the road in that client meeting yesterday.”

Employee: “Well, of course perception isn’t always reality.”

Manager: “I heard at one point the client got fairly upset.”

Employee: “What is upset, really? I saw it as passionate engagement, which is a good thing. They got really clear about what they needed.”

Manager: “Um, if the client gets upset, then we’re not doing our job.”

Employee: “Perhaps, but isn’t it also true that sometimes we have to tell them something they don’t want to hear?”

This deflection uses the power of the reframing and the unknown to shift the frame of the conversation to one without borders, where no one really knows anything for sure. While this is a useful tool in meditation, therapeutic, or philosophical inquiry contexts, in conversations that have a through-line that needs to resolve at a decision or agreement, this kind of thinking derails progress (on purpose).

It feels a bit like trying to fill a bucket with a hole in it. Whatever you do to try to form an argument, the excuse-maker drains it into an ocean of unknown. It’s powerful because it works, especially when helping someone to release an unproductive belief. For example:

Client: “It just seems like whatever I say to my wife, she gets upset.”

Therapist: “That sounds very difficult, but it is true that everything you say makes her upset?”

Client: “Yes!”

Therapist: “Really? Literally everything you say upsets her?”

Client: “Well, no not everything.”

Therapist: “How do you react when you believe the thought that everything upsets her?”

Client: “I get angry. I feel trapped. I don’t want to talk to her. I don’t even want to go home.”

Therapist: “Good to notice. So is that a belief you want to hold onto?”

Leading someone into not-knowing is one of the most important tools for therapists, coaches, mediators, and (increasingly) managers. As the technique gains popularity, so do instances of its misuse. Rather than using not-knowing as a means to lead to truth, an excuse-maker uses it to avoid the truth. Unsurprisingly, people with professional training that requires proficiency in this technique are most likely to use it.

Such professionals spend a great deal of time challenging beliefs and dwelling in the unknown as a source of power, and it can be difficult for them to turn it off and inhabit the relative vulnerability of being as confused as the rest of us. It’s nearly inevitable that professional not-knowers over-identify with the role and hide in it.

I actually spent many years learning this lesson myself. For a defensive system, maintaining a subtle authority edge with others and wielding the power of disappearing their thoughts is incredibly seductive.

This is what most likely got Socrates killed—that he used the gift indiscriminately, as a form of relating, rather than as a tool to perform a job the person asked for. I’ve learned the hard way (though not as hard as Socrates did) that you don’t make friends challenging others’ perception of reality, source of identity, or most deeply held values—no matter how much suffering those things might be causing.

In peer relationships, therefore, challenging someone’s basic assumptions about reality requires the utmost care, an established and trusting relationship, and great sensitivity. In professional situations, competence must be served. Let’s continue the first example to resolution:

Employee: “Perhaps, but isn’t it also true that sometimes we have to tell them something they don’t want to hear?”

Manager: “So here’s what I’m noticing: I’m trying to get clarity about what happened, and you’re making things less clear each time.”

Employee: “If that’s your interpretation.”

Manager: “Not only is it my interpretation, it’s reality. I understand that the fluid, we-can’t-really-know-anything-for-sure perspective can sometimes be very useful, but as your manager I’m making the call that now isn’t one of those times. As a professional, I need you to be able to switch gears and report on facts. Please show me you can do this and tell me what happened in that meeting. I know you can. We’ll talk another time about this pattern and how it may be showing up elsewhere, but right now we don’t have time.”

There is of course a gentler way, which I’ve illustrated in other excuses, but sometimes in the name of expediency, directness is called for. It’s important however, to take the time at some point to dig into what happened and discover what was being hidden. In the above example, the employee likely was a contributing factor to the client-upset and avoids speaking to it directly.

Very often managers have the ability to cut through an excuse, but don’t take the time later on to debrief and unpack what happened, which amounts to supervision without management. The effect on the employee is they feel like a cog in a machine rather than truly cared about and developed, creating disengagement.

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