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In the Beginning

At the outset of each and every Socrates Cafe -- and regularly throughout the course of the dialogue, particularly if/when people start getting confrontational and lose track of what this is all about -- you should stress to participants that this is meant to be a thoughtful and reflective philosophical sharing. For this to take place, each participant must need and want to cultivate his/her capacity to become a more careful listener -- indeed, the ability to listen with all one's being to what other participants are sharing is the most important quality a Socrates Cafe-goer can have. Socrates Cafe is meant to provide a refreshing and exhilarating alternative to the way many groups engage with one another -- it is meant to be the exact opposite of the mindless types of debates and diatribes and polemics and which he/she who speaks the loudest and interrupts the most and browbeats the best and engages in the most frequent non-redemptive oneupsmanship "wins," whatever that could mean. Socrates Cafe is meant to cultivate new habits of discourse in which the primary purpose is to inspire each person within the community of inquiry further to cultivate and discover his/her unique point of view, nothing more and certainly nothing less.

2. How to Facilitate a Socrates Café

Now that you've found a coffeehouse or bookstore or other suitable venue to hold a Socrates Café on a regular basis -- and most importantly, now that you've made a long-term commitment to doing this, whether one person attends or a hundred -- one burning question you likely have is: How do I facilitate a Socrates Café?

What kind of question is appropriate? In a Socrates Café, just about any question can be grist for a meaningful dialogue. Or at least, virtually any question can be fine-tuned so it can be looked at in a philosophical way.

Example 1:  When Timothy McVeigh was put to death, a person who wanted to discuss why this happened framed the question in a way in which the group could look not only at this particular issue, but a wide range of other issues of philosophic important that were related. The question became: "Who owns human life?"

Example 2:  Soon after we went to war in Iraq, people wanted to talk about whether this was the appropriate course of action. To do so in a philosophical way, to look at it in both abstract and concrete ways in which this particular war could also be juxtaposed with wars throughout human history, they framed the question this way:  "What is a just war?"

Example 3:  A group of Socrates Cafe-goers wanted to examine the so-called "gay marriage issue" in a philosophical way, in a way that wouldn't just lead to a knockdown drag-out debate of non-redemptive putting people down and showing them up, but a way that could really examine the issue thoughtfully, and also in a way in which gay marriage was looked at in the broader context of the institution of marriage as a whole, the question was framed this way:  "What is an excellent marriage?"

How do we decide on a question for discussion? How do we decide on a question for discussion? Ask the participants for questions. Encourage them to propose for Socratic discourse any question that is on their minds. Their questions don't at all have to be traditional ones. Read all the questions aloud to the participants, and then have two votes:  The first time around, ask them to vote on any of the questions listed -- meaning they can vote more than once. But ask them to vote only for those questions that leave them feeling the least expert and the most curious and perplexed -- because we've found again and again that those questions that leave you feeling that the ground is shaking a little bit under your feet are those that are most worth interrogating Socratically (whereas, if you vote for a question in which you already think you know "the answer," it will be a very empty exercise). Then, vote a second time, on those two or three questions that were the top vote-getters during the first round. This time, the participants can only vote once (the facilitator does not vote -- if there's a tie, flip a coin to decide the winning question). Chose that question which gets the most votes.

How do I launch a discussion on the chosen question? At the outset, let a few of the participants respond to the question in any way they please. But just when they think it's safe to assume that this is going to be a free-for-all confab without any underlying method-start probing the question in a Socratic way. That is, examine it for: 1) built-in assumptions, 2) embedded concepts, 3) differences of kind and degree, and logical consistencies and inconsistencies. Then try to seek out compelling objections and alternative viewpoints.

How do I find the question's built-in assumptions? For example, when a participant asks an apparently deep question like "How can we overcome alienation?" you need to challenge the premise of the question at the outset. You may ask: Is alienation something we always want to overcome? Shakespeare and Goethe may have written their timeless works because they embraced a sense of alienation rather than attempting to escape it.

Where are the concepts embedded in this question? To probe the question of overcoming alienation, you first need to ask and answer such questions as: What is alienation? What does it mean to overcome alienation? Why would we ever want to overcome alienation? By separating out the concepts and exploring them individually, everyone will get to see the question from a new perspective.

What are examples of exploring "differences of kind and degree"? In response to the alienation question, you might ask: Are there some types of alienation that you want to overcome and other types that you do not at all want to overcome but rather want to incorporate into yourself? What are some of the many different types of alienation? How do they differ? But also, what are the aspects that link them? Is it possible to be completely alienated?

How do I know there will be alternative views? You may think you already can predict the responses. But you and everyone else probably will be surprised by just how diverse and eye-opening they will be. In exploring the meaning of the terms they use, participants will reveal and articulate philosophies of basic concepts they might take for granted. This is what makes for a spontaneous and thrilling discussion.

How do I deal with people who monopolize the conversation or who do not show respect for other participants? Since Socrates Cafés are typically held in public places, anybody is welcome to participate. It is very important to create an environment in which all participants feel comfortable to participate and listen. If one of the participants seems to dominate the discussion and often interrupts others, the facilitator needs to be assertive and make sure that others have their say as well. If necessary, you may want to talk in private with the person and point out gently that he or she needs to be more considerate of others who also want to have their say. You should explain that quiet or shy people may feel intimidated if they are interrupted by more aggressive personalities and that you want to create and maintain a safe, caring, and supportive environment for all the participants. Once in a blue moon, a person simply will not abide by the parameters of discourse, and will persist in dominating and monopolizing and hectoring, despite your heartfelt attempts to explain the ethos of Socrates Café. In such an instance, you regrettably may have to ask him/her to leave, lest he/she lead to the dissolution of the entire group because of inappropriate behavior (if this does come to pass, be sure to encourage the person to start a discussion group that is more to his/her liking and that mirrors his/her preference for verbal combat rather than empathetic philosophizing).

How can I encourage people to speak? A good facilitator can create a healthy environment for exchange by setting an example for others. First and foremost, a good facilitator must be a very engaged listener. You need to be actively listening to what each participant is saying at the time; do not project how you are going to respond or what you will ask next. Also, make sure that all the people who want to participate have a chance to do so; look for body language or hand signals from people who want to speak. They may make a gesture to indicate that they have something to say, and after a while they may stop doing it because some time has passed or what they intended to say does not seem relevant anymore. If this happens, you can still give them a chance to voice their ideas by asking them what they think about what was just discussed.

Is it okay to have only one facilitator? In the beginning, you may be the only facilitator, because you took the initiative to organize the group, and because others simply don't want to try their hand at it. However, over time, you should look for other participants, especially those who are particularly careful and thoughtful listeners and questioners (it doesn't matter in the least whether they have a background in philosophy or not), who would like to try their hand at facilitating and who clearly grasp the nature of this type of inquiry. Socrates Café is meant to be a refreshing alternative, where an egalitarian spirit allows many voices. So the more facilitators, the merrier. Every facilitator will bring a different style, which will enrich the dialogues and help ensure the group's long-term viability.

Do facilitators have to be neutral or can they express their perspectives too? Like everyone in the group, the facilitator of a Socrates Café is striving to become a better questioner. As a facilitator, you will see that it is very difficult to be neutral. The kinds of questions you ask in the course of a dialogue are themselves a reflection of your personal curiosity. However, you should strive to some degree to be more neutral than the rest. You are not a teacher, and your purpose is not to lead the group to a certain answer or truth. If you monopolize the discussion, others might feel intimidated or turned off. Your role as facilitator is to help and inspire others articulate their unique perspectives.

1. How to Get Started?                   2. How to facilitate a Socrates Café?                3. Facilitator and Participant Dos and Don'tsSC_Tips_One.htmlSC_Tips_Three.htmlshapeimage_6_link_0shapeimage_6_link_1
1. How to Get Started?                   2. How to facilitate a Socrates Café?                3. Facilitator and Participant Dos and Don'tsSC_Tips_One.htmlSC_Tips_Three.htmlshapeimage_9_link_0shapeimage_9_link_1