Article #2: The Socratic Method of Investigation

The Socratic Method of Investigation is the key strategy employed by people with verbal skills and is essentially the heart and soul concept for navigating reality.

Before I illustrate the strategy, I will present a short history of the legend who it’s coined after, Socrates. Socrates was a man living in Athens, Greece approximately 2500 years ago, from 469-399 B.C. There is not much factually known about his life because he didn’t write anything down and the few people who did have conflicting reports. We know he was born during a time of the Greco-Persian war, which ended around the time he was 20 years old. Allegedly, earlier in his life he was a stone mason and later fought as a hoplite in the Peloponnesian war. However, he was most known for being a teacher and a philosopher.

His teaching and philosophic style can be summarized as the Socratic Method of Investigation. Like many of the best teachers in the ancient past, they did not lecture, they responded to the student’s questions and inquiry. Socrates would ask specific leading questions to his student’s causing them to clarify their position or inquiry. As a result, the students would be forced to think deeply about whatever it was they were learning about.

At the time, most of the knowledge about the nature of reality was explained by the Gods, or in a metaphysical way. Socrates teaching style did not rely on either of those, but instead, relied on logic and reason. Socrates became so well known, the Oracle of Delphi, who was considered one of the most powerful women at the time and known for her prophecies (woo-woo), proclaimed he was the wisest man alive. When Socrates heard of her sentiment, he thought it was non-sense and as the story is told, spent time in search of a man wiser than himself. He would go thru the town asking strangers questions, most of whom would get annoyed or irritated when Socrates’ line of questions drew out contradictions or made them sound silly. Ultimately, he found no man wiser than himself and essentially comprehended what the Oracle proclaimed. You see, his position was, “The only true wisdom is knowing that you know nothing” while almost all other men claimed they knew something. The lesson here is not to make a claim.

Socrates also knew there were problems with democracy because of the attack vectors that could enable an undesirable outcome. For instance, dumb people voting, or a person manipulating the public with mind control techniques. My point is the poly-tics in control likely did not appreciate Socrates clarifying the problems with the system for the public. Fast forward to the end of the Peloponnesian war when the state of Athens was deteriorating, the state was looking to push the blame off on to others. The state targeted Socrates and put him on trial for:

  1. Refusing to recognize the gods acknowledged by the state
  2. Importing strange divinities of his own
  3. Corrupting the young

Socrates did not have anyone re-present his story at trial, instead he defended himself in the same manner he taught his students, and the same strategy we use to defend ourselves today. He asked his accusers to clarify their position and to support their claim with evidence. He did not do this necessarily to make them (the state) think deeply, but to make the jury and the public think deeply. I will go into detail in later writings about some nuances, but it is important to know, when someone defends themselves in this manner in court, they are not really expecting an unethical actor to have an epiphany and suddenly act ethically. They are trying to build up public awareness and pressure so that it will explode if the state continues. From a game theory perspective, we want the state to see us as a dangerous target because of the Risk/Reward dynamic. Ultimately, the people of Athens voted 280 to 220 in favor of Guilty and sentenced Socrates to death. The state allegedly allowed Socrates to propose an alternative punishment, like living in exile, but he did not wish to do that. Instead, he drank hemlock, a poison, and then expired. 

I summarize the Socratic Method of Investigation (Socratics) as:

  1. Not making claims.
  2. Asking clarifying questions of people who do make claims.
  3. Active Listening; for logical fallacies or contradictions and then calling them out and/or ask them to clarify further.

There are some other ingredients for success which I will touch briefly on in this article, but will go into detail in the coming weeks. The proper mindset, which includes a genuine curiosity and an absence of fear, is critical and makes a huge difference in the outcome. In the adversarial Court Game, with a lot on the line it is natural for people to be in a state of fear, but we must overcome it with knowledge of the situation and practice. It is also natural to see the other side in this scenario as an opponent or the enemy; however, that is likely counterproductive.

In Chris Voss’ book, Never Split the Difference, he mentions the importance of treating the other person as a partner who you are attempting to solve a problem with, and NOT as an opponent or adversary. We do not want the person we are communicating with to be operating in a mind set of fear as fear reduces people’s ability to perform higher order thinking. Higher order thinking is often required of all involved in order to reach the best possible outcome (for you). I fully realize there are low conscious people who are not capable of higher order thinking and simply react to stimuli. Let’s call those people Non-Playable Characters (NPCs). 

When dealing with NPCs, the principle of Cause & Effect is in play so let’s shift gears for a moment. The principle of Cause & Effect is one of the natural law’s or forces at work in nature and is described as:

“Every cause has an effect; every effect has a cause; everything happens according to law; Chance is but a name for a law not recognized; there are many planes of causation, but nothing escapes the law.” – The Kybalion*

Once someone becomes aware of this principle, they are able to transcend it by becoming the cause and not the effect. When dealing with NPCs, you can introduce stimuli that will get them to react a certain way; the way you want them to act. For instance, if a tax agent claims you broke some rules, you can create a record (evidence) of the tax agent admitting they do not actually have evidence that the rules apply to you. You can cause them to do this by asking some clarifying questions leading them to the truth you suspect. This is accomplished by simply asking “How do your tax rules apply to me?” and the agent will answer with something like, your physical location and some piece of paper your employer sent them. They may reference some other rules or document like the Constitution, but whatever it is, with a few more clarifications, they will be lost for words. It will be hard to get them to admit they have no solid evidence, but something like “would you agree you currently don’t have any evidence to prove the rules apply to me?” often yields either a yes, or them going mute/hanging up the phone which is just as incriminating.

Causing an NPC to behave a certain way may not always good enough. Sometimes we need the people we are negotiating with to break out of their programming and think outside the box. One way to do this, is to ask a question they are not programmed to answer. In the example with the tax agent above, after they make an admission, you can request they de-escalate the case until they find such evidence. If they refuse, then ask “well, then what will it take for the case to be de-escalated?” and see if they give you any more information to work with. Another way to break NPCs out of their programming is to insert fear into the equation by asking “Are you personally accepting liability for continuing to pursue this ‘case’ without evidence the rules even apply to me?” We don’t want them to be in a state of fear, but we can strategically use elements of fear to our advantage. Asking if they are accepting personal liability inserts fear into the equation and gives them an another opportunity to think for a solution that helps them and you. If they will not accept liability, request to speak with the person who will and watch a game of hot potato be played. Since the conversation will be recorded, it creates a record which is evidence, and if you remained calm and non-combative, it makes you and your position look much better than the state’s.

Most of the time when dealing with the state or in the Court Game, we are not asking questions because we DON’T know the answer, we are asking the questions because we DO know the answer. We are leading them down a path and setting traps along the way. I will do a whole article on mindset but it’s important to mention here that we need to be genuinely curious about their position, which means you cannot be combative. Being combative triggers alarm bells in their mind, shuts down their higher order thinking, and they begin to close off open communication.

For a great example of how to act, I suggest watching a few episodes of the 1970’s classic TV show called Columbo, which is about a homicide detective solving cases. To the suspect, Columbo appears as a naïve and incompetent person, which causes them to let their guard down or outright dismiss Columbo as a threat. Columbo’s catchphrase was “just one more question..” which he spoke prior to asking the clarifying question which the suspect couldn’t really answer without incriminating themselves. If you are able to verbally defend yourself in court, you will be walking the judge down a similar path ending with you asking the judge a final clarification question they do not want to answer. That moment is usually either the start of the battle or the end of the battle.

I have found using Socratics works beautifully as a base strategy for any interaction with another human. Most people don’t successfully communicate what they want or desire. A wife may tell her husband “I wish you wouldn’t spend so much time working” because ultimately, she wants to spend more time with him. You can see what she says does not match what her desire truly is. If the husband is also a bad communicator, he may do what she says and work less, only to golf more, which would not fulfill the desires of his wife. If the husband asks for clarification on why she wishes for him to work less, he will discover her true desire of wanting to spend more time with him. My point is, most people have poor communication skills and it is often results in wasted time, arguments, and headaches. 

Marshall Rosenburg, who created a communication strategy called Non-Violent Communication (NVC), points out that all forms of communication are essentially someone seeking help from another person in fulfilling one of their unmet needs (or desires). Someone who blurts out “I’m thirsty,” they don’t just want people to know, they are hoping someone offers to bring them a drink. When someone initiates communications with you, they almost always want something, whether it’s your attention, time, or resources. Using Socratics, or genuine inquiry, will help clarify the nature of other people’s requests. The beautiful thing about genuine inquiry or curiosity is it builds empathy with those who you are interacting with.

I mentioned Chris Voss earlier and he points out how important empathy is in the equation of a successful negotiation. In the Court Game, we call this steel manning – or confirming the other person’s position – before you attack it. Back to the husband/wife example from earlier; after the husband draws out his wife’s desires, he needs to confirm them; “It sounds like you want me to work less so we can spend more time to together?” If she confirms, he can isolate by asking if there is any other reason she wants him to work less? Asking if there is a certain time or activity she prefers is also useful information. Once you properly investigate the other person’s needs or desires, you can proceed to help them how you see fit, without unnecessary sacrifices on your end.

I have mentioned the state’s lack of evidence a few times so next week I will be delving into the topic of Authority and what would actually constitute evidence that the rules apply. There will be a couple more articles presenting some of the foundational groundwork, general ideas and concepts before we can get into some of the specific strategies and examples of badass Verbal Armament.

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