Leadership Lesson: Why Socratic Dialogue for Leaders is Critical

Image of Sira Abenoza

In a recent episode of the Narativ Storytalks Podcast, hosts Jerome Deroy and Julienne Ryan had the opportunity to speak with Sira Abenoza, a professor at ESADE business and law school in Barcelona and founder of the Institute for Socratic Dialogue in Spain. Sira is an expert in facilitating conversations between people with radically different viewpoints, and she firmly believes that the widespread practice of Socratic dialogue is not only important for addressing major world issues but is also something that could vastly improve the business world. 

In this episode, Jerome, Julienne, and Sira discussed Sira’s journey to founding her institute as well as some of the particulars of creating a Socratic dialogue space and why dialogue is such a vital skill for world leaders and CEOs alike. 

Sira’s Story: The Philosophy of Business

Sira’s understanding of the concepts she teaches first arose from her unique educational experience. As a university student, she split her time between a private business school and a public university where she studied philosophy. The experience of simultaneously living in two drastically different worlds sparked a desire to bring philosophy into the business world. This led her to work in business consulting where she largely focused on corporate social responsibility while also teaching university courses on the same topic. 

“As you know, one of the pillars of corporate social responsibility is the idea that a responsible business is a business that is able to engage in dialogue with its stakeholders,” Sira explained.

She noticed in her consulting work that her clients tended to agree that dialogue was important to running a sustainable and ethical business. The problem was that while the people in charge of the companies she worked with agreed with the sentiment, they were never quite able to put it into practice. This was a turning point for Sira, as she realized that to help shape her clients and students into responsible professionals, she would first need to teach them how to engage in dialogue. 

To create her dialogue model, Sira turned to the father of philosophy himself: Socrates. 

The Socratic Approach

The Socratic method is an approach to debate where all parties involved aim not to “win” but to share ideas and opinions in a way that encourages critical thought, growth, and mutual understanding. 

Sira began teaching her business students to engage in this sort of dialogue, and within a few years the course became so successful that students from all over the world were applying for exchange programs just to attend her classes. According to many former students, learning the Socratic method not only impacted how they navigate business situations, but how they interact with people in their lives. 

Sira went on to describe how she eventually realized that she should also be teaching these skills in her university’s law department. “We’re teaching our law students all the rules and laws, and yet they’re getting their degrees without ever having been inside a jail.” she remembered thinking. So Sira got to work creating a course where law students engage in Socratic dialogue with prison inmates to help them understand the entire system they would be representing in their law practices. 

The success and impact of this program highlighted the need for an institution dedicated to teaching these skills. “I realized that this need for dialogue was not something special to business or law school students, but it was a need that was present in everyone in our societies,” Sira said. 

A Drastic Need for Dialogue 

Sira believes that Socratic dialogue skills are desperately needed in today’s increasingly polarized social and political climates. The ability to exchange ideas without there being a “winner” is something that could lead to far better outcomes—both in politics and in Twitter arguments. 

“We all, with the best intentions and purpose, get stuck in our dialogue,” Julienne agreed, elaborating that a paradigm shift is often needed in order to break free of the dialogue of our in-group and mature our world view. 

To show what this looks like in action, Sira detailed a project she undertook in Northern Ireland in 2016. Sira was there as former terrorists on either side of the fight for Irish independence agreed to meet together to engage in dialogue. 

“Through the dialogue process they were finally able to realize that, had they been born on the other side, they might have defended the same ideas,” Sira said of the former radicals. The success of this project allowed her later to appeal to the government of her native Catalonia to help work through similar tensions that were escalating in the region. 

As Jerome, Julienne, and Sira discussed how this might help to generally influence more peaceful world solutions, Jerome pointed out, “An individual trait we all need to be cultivating and nurturing is how to create dialogue with the people we most disagree with.” 

If all major political and business leaders were to embrace this method, outcomes would likely be a vast improvement over the current polarization. 

What Does a Socratic Dialogue Look Like? 

Over the course of the interview, Sira explained that a large part of what sets a Socratic discussion apart from a normal conversation or debate is the creation of a space where everyone feels safe, comfortable, and equal. She stressed that the dialogue space must be on neutral ground for everyone involved to ensure that sense of equality. For the same reason, she added that everyone should be seated in a circle and on the same level. 

After taking care to establish equality, the discussion itself is where the skills Sira teaches make all the difference. The dialogue needs to be approached on all sides as an opportunity to learn and refine ideas, rather than a competition. All participants need to feel safe in sharing their ideas and opinions, knowing they will not be attacked for their expression and also that any opposing ideas or pushback should not be taken as an attack. All ideas are welcome, with the exception being any that favor causing the suffering of another person. 

As the dialogue progresses and the people involved begin to collaboratively reach new ideas and different solutions, all decisions that result should be treated as a group effort rather than the idea of any one person. This collaborative approach to discussing ideas in groups with opposing viewpoints naturally leads to the development of more ethical and diverse ideas as well as greater empathy for people with disparate opinions. 

“That takes us to participants becoming allies in helping each other identify those ideas that we defend that don’t make sense or might become hurtful,” Sira explained. 

How Can We Apply This Ourselves? 

To close out the interview, Sira and the hosts concluded with the point that mastering the skills required to regularly engage in Socratic dialogue will serve you in your personal and professional life no matter who you are. 

Especially in business, this is a critical skill to develop to successfully make and implement business decisions that are both productive and ethical. If applied on a global scale, it’s easy to see how this approach might result in positive change for any business or institution. 

If you want to learn more about Sira’s work, you can listen to her TedX talk, Why Socratic Dialogue Should Become Our Business Card or visit her institute’s website. There are also documentaries—Philosophy Behind Bars and In Dialogue—about both of the dialogue projects mentioned in this podcast episode if you would like to see them in action. 

If you would like to learn more about Narativ and how story training can help your company to develop similar listening and dialogue skills, visit us here

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