In this article, we follow the phases of the Socratic Design process. In the nine steps of the method, a group passes through a self-disruptive process of transformation. In each stage, the reflective capacity of the group develops further, thanks to the collective attention and the disciplined dialogue. With each step, the complexity of the challenge increases. The final objective is to design a new narrative that is future proof with a steady moral compass, a new narrative that incorporates our values, our purposes and a way to create meaning.
1. The narrative
The bubble we are living in.
Why we are living in a narrative and why we are not aware of this fact?
The life we live is full of habits that guide our way of thinking, acting, and feeling. The pattern we choose out of millions of possibilities depends on our tradition, our history, experiences, values, language, our place on the earth and so on. This pattern contains the way we raise our kids, cook our meals, spend our free time, enjoy our feast and appreciate beauty and nature. Even the way we evaluate the truth, reality, and science all form part of an ingenious bubble that we should call our existential “narrative.”
To give meaning to the things that surround us and the things that are in us, we need a collective approach; that is the way it works. The personal narrative always fits in the collective picture.
You – unconsciously – treat your life as a narrative; you act according to the previous chapters, and you sometimes close a “chapter in your life,” and open a new one, you evaluate if a decision is in harmony with previous ones.We try to make coherent narratives. You will say for instance: ” I would never do that,” meaning that such an act would not fit in your story. Every next step has to be in harmony with the preceding chapters.
All these narratives have assumptions as invisible and explicit fundaments. A hypothesis can also be a consequence of personal trauma. A grammar school teacher calling you a “lantern without a light, ” can provoke the start of a new assumption that can determine lifelong choices, unconsciously you will choose for easy-to-do studies, take simple tasks and avoid intellectual challenges.
The assumptions are mostly philosophical. They deal with the way we consider humans, nature, society, culture, science, and morals. For instance, it makes a difference if we consider humans to be aggressive worriers or peaceful citizens; rational agents or emotional beings; egoists or empathic animals. Society seen as a platform for competition would imply a different life then society seen as a shared public place to meet each other and enjoy companionship.
If we consider abstract science has the highest entrance to reality, we will not give too much attention to subjective experience. Even science is part of a specific approach to reality. We live in a specific narrative, and we think, act and feel according to it.
The downside of this construction is that we cannot escape from this frame. Ones we are locked up in this landscape – and we are locked up because we are born and raised in it – we continue to walk along these lines. Also, our thinking is NOT what we think it is; it consists mostly of a repetition of addictive thoughts. The repetitive addictive thoughts can be either brilliant or stupid thoughts, and we can be hooked on them. Why? Because we think with our mind and body: our neuro-system contains addictive processes with endorphins. So just thinking “hard” will not help you out.
We grew up in the world of “coal and steel,” these assumptions are still determining our thoughts, acts, and feelings. Even if you are in a think tank, a brainstorm, a scrum or a deep dive, you will still be in the old frame of references. You will not be able to jump to new thinking just by yourself: we always depend on our habits.
So, this is the situation we are finding ourselves in: trapped in a successful and comfortable bubble without knowing or seeing it. We believe we are in reality. It is hard to think differently or to think without repetitive thoughts. It is clear that most teams and organizations will converge to old ideas, even if they try to be innovative. Although we live in an era of exponential technological disruptions, we can not escape our minds wiring.
2. A collaborative, reflective awareness space (CRAS)
Making space for “shared” attention and awareness.
We need to step outside the narrative to become aware of it. We cannot stay in the story and reflect on it. We need this external position to open our eyes and free our selves from burdens of our system of thought. We need a helicopter view out of context. But how?
In the Socratic Design process, we construct an extraordinary space in which the group practices the “art of listening” and the “art of collective attention” leading to a collaborative mind. We usually pretend to listen; while we only capture those words that fit in our sequence of thoughts. You can ask after any meeting you are in, a report of the participants about the content discussed: you will receive as many different stories as there are participants.
Listening is hard because even when you think you are listening, you are not. You first need some exercises to realize this. The discipline in the Socratic Dialogue will bring us into a “listening” mode so that we can leave behind our addictive “smart” thoughts.
The second hindrance to a reflective space is the addiction we have to the same repetitive thoughts and the addiction we have to the same assumptions. These assumptions – to make things worse – are often hidden or under the surface, because of the pain that often comes with it. You can easily see the colleague who always comes up with the same slogan, beginning with the same introduction like: ” I always say….” and then something smart as ever, follows. You will probably know the way he or she will reason after these starting comments. Not seldom a group knows more about a person then that person self.
You too will have in your way of thinking, addictive thoughts and hidden assumptions. So we make argumentations based on mechanisms that control us uncontrollably! We reason in automatisms and suggest ourselves that we are thinking.
We build ourselves a castle that consists of fixed defensive assumptions as towers! Some act only out of their defensive towers and then say “that is me!”. The castle is not you; it is the fortress of fear-based hypotheses.
It is without any doubt that we need real thinking when we want to face all sort of challenges in our companies, schools, families, organizations, and governments. We can only accomplish that in a safe context where the discipline brings us out of our locked-in stories (narratives). In that context, we can look at our assumptions and start a real argumentation based on listening and creative reasoning.
In this Collaborative, Reflective Awareness Space (CRAS) we can practice honesty and truthfulness and free ourselves of the limits of the dominant story. These limits are connected to personal fear or even to collective fear like guilt emotions in some religions. Openness, honesty, and straightforwardness are keys in producing the critical approach which is typical in Socratic Dialogues.
This CRAS is very generative in a think tank or strategic conversation within any organization: before we think we first transform the group into real thinkers. You can imagine that this CRAS is a perfect position to analyze the narrative we practice. It makes a profound, deep dive into the assumptions of our narrative tangible.
3. The analytic picture of the story we live in
Due to the transformation from a group of intelligent individuals into a collective creative mind which dares to make explicit all sorts of thoughts and dogmas, we get a clear picture of the world we have created around us and in ourselves.
In this picture, we observe the factory of meanings we practice in our daily life. We can even reveal painful taboos or compulsive thoughts. This result already changes our reality: we see the forces at work that destiny our lives.
Philosophers like Foucault made us aware of the powers that steer within us. Now we can experience this in practice. Philosophical insights can become part of our daily life interactions. When somebody says “Never trust another person,” we can point to the fact that she or he is using a philosophical assumption that is related to a specific approach of for instance Thomas Hobbes, but which could easily be refuted by our practical arguments.
The first situation is now enriched with an extra layer, thanks to CRAS. In this narrative “extra level,” we interact differently with one and another. We get a more explorative mind that does not fall into comfortable repetitive reasoning. Explore means here searching for new areas, it is exciting, and we dare to correct each other if we fall back into the addictive mode of thinking. So, due to the methodological space, we have an extra dimension in the reality of our team. Philosophical explanations and approaches can be useful in deepening the impact of our daily customs of using this or that assumptions or thought.
We can talk about all sort of customs, practices or behavior from a whole new perspective when we include this extra-level. We see for instance the way the state approaches our kids, full of negative assumptions about their motivation to learn. Schools are full, of negative bias: if you take a look at the set of rules pupils receive their first day at school, you will be stunned. Kids do not want to learn; they do not want to listen, they are lazy and will always come late.
We can see assumptions at work if we look at the way we approach our clients or neighbors or even our partner. We assume a lot of fixed thoughts when we engage in our direct environment. But becoming aware of it can change your way of looking at all these familiar things. When you start a quarrel with your partner, try to become aware of the assumption that causes your negative feelings. You will see automatic thinking involved.
When you see any product try to imagine all the premises connected to this product. This exercise can already lead to innovations or even to new products and services. The presupposition that comes with an airplane is that it is flying all the time; when Michale Leary realized this assumption, he revolutionized the whole aviation industry. The planes of Ryanair are always in the air!
The result is a crystal clear analytic picture of your present story.
4. Evaluations of old and new ethical presuppositions
The next step in the method is to look carefully at our assumptions and assess them critically.
We put our assumptions between brackets; we expose them in the open and in this sensitive state – thanks to the collective attention -we can disarm ourselves. We can be open for critical investigation, leaving our fortress of fear behind! We can check our inner coherence: is our thinking process conform our values?
Coherence is probably one of the most desired states of being. If we have this in our personal lives, in our family, and in our organizations, we do not suffer from contradictions within our selves. Coherence is a state where all the activities and processes converge towards a unifying purpose.
In this step of the Socratic Design process, we use the CRAS in a more philosophical mode. We can connect the discovered assumptions with some practical, philosophical theories to get an insight into the interconnectedness of all these hypotheses. For instance school rules all combine a quite cynical approach to the pupil’s willingness to learn. A business approach can assume a model of a very passive consumer who does not exercise any proper initiative. The connection between all the hypotheses is a vague concept of the meaning of life, or of the good life.
Any product or service or program always connects in one way or another to some idea of the meaning of life. We all want a good life; our ideas stem from education, schools, culture, art, experiences and so on. How this all mingles in one concept of a good life is not always clear. Most of it goes unconscious. You can consider the world’s religions as one of the attempts to concretize these practices; their ways are sometimes mysterious. Art is an experience that creates meaning in whole new dimensions.
Ethics is the discipline which deals with the core question: “How to decide what is good?”. It is a systematic approach that tries to clarify all that is at stake in the analysis of our existential values. At this point in the process, we use philosophical tools to transform the group into an ethical think tank. The participants develop a horizon of values applying the art of listening, the Socratic interview, the Socratic Dialogue, and the value cascade. Above all, they develop a moral sense approach.
5. The making of the moral sketch
Thanks to the ethical discourse in the CRAS, the group is now capable of sketching a new moral system based on their values. There is a shared moral awareness thanks to the art of listening (respect) and thanks to the discovery of the addictive thought system. In this open and explorative sphere, we can assess together real values and real human needs. Every person is present as transparent as possible, and the thinking process becomes as visible as possible. You can consider yourself as a specimen of the human kind so investigating yourself is investigating humanity.
In this ethical outline, you establish a set of values as a base. We define the moral assumptions we want to continue ( human beings have empathy for instance), and we formulate new assumptions we want to introduce in the moral sketch. This sketch contains principles, values, rules of conduct, ethical laws, strategies to act “good,” ways to become a good character, dilemmas and case studies.
The making of the sketch is an act of integrity. The Socratic Design method creates a moral reflective atmosphere. The participants are in a reflective state of mind and will use their own experiences and explorative reasoning to develop an attractive sketch that fits their aspirations.
The experiences people have in their private and public lives are always very vibrant, and strongly related to moral questions. The best way to develop a theory (“Teoria” means the way of looking at the world) is to work from concrete human experiences. We can analyze all these experiences and reach general conclusions within the group that would be valid for more people than the ones present.
The sketch can take any form: text, audio, video, simulations, thought experiences or performances. The artistic representation leads to a direct understanding of the approach. We are not only rational beings; the result will directly connect with our emotional intelligence as well.
6. Culture Sketch
In the next Collective Attentive Reflective Space, we design a new culture with all kinds of assumptions, starting from the previous sketch.
To prepare the process of designing the new narrative, we define the desired ingredients based on the proceeding phases. We need values, top experiences, good traditions, good habits, new assumptions, etc.
The different assumptions will be related to philosophical approaches by organizing Socratic Dialogues on these subjects. The analysis will establish a coherency between the different building blocks. This coherency analysis will have anthropological, socio-philosophical, ethical, epistemological, ontological and esthetical dimensions. It deals with questions on the model of the human being, the good society, the right behavior, the trusted scientific approach, reality, and beauty.
In the dialogues, we analyze if the hypotheses form a coherent whole. If the group comes to contradictory sets, we create more then one collection. Within each collection, coherence is the criterium. Key is the construction of sound argumentations; the group creates a practical, philosophical approach that will be the fruit of the collective attention that the method establishes. In this phase, the emergent intelligence has been improved due to the learning process of the preceding steps.
The group is not a debating group anymore; it is a real unified embodied mind that can look at different angles at whatever issues. It does not mean that we strive for consensus. Different positions will pop up, any objection of an individual we accept as a possible new approach for all. Most of all, the group has now developed a level of pragmatic philosophical capacity to apply philosophical concepts concretely. Common sense can be changed by new philosophical approaches.
The result is an emerging intelligence that generates complete new substances for a narrative.
7. The making of a narrative
In this phase, we design a full story in which we can live according to our best assumptions and values. It certainly has utopian aspects, but rooted in practical wisdom and experiences. We have used Socratic Design tools like value cascade, best practices, Socratic interviews and above all Socratic Dialogue and the artistic part if Socratic Design.
According to the pragmatic philosophy, real knowledge is always a synthesis between praxis and theory. In this stage, we can leave behind the old addictive thoughts as we have been talked before. We can leave behind the mindset from the “industrial” era: We can leave behind old presuppositions like men is an egoist, a rational agent for only self-interest, man as a brain steering a body, man as longing for possessions. We could make a narrative that includes assumption from different sciences like neuroscience and physics. And we add to it with successful experiences from individual success stories of the participants.
We could switch from the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes into the story of Rousseau, from the religious approach to the hedonistic morality of Michel Onfray. We could use Nietzsche in creating our life as a piece of art. John Dewey helps us to radically shift to other approaches of the essence of a human being.
It is not your brain that is the core of your existence; it is your experience, your inter-action with the outside world that defines you. The treasure of philosophy is the source for the Socratic Design process: we can tap in thousands of years of wisdom. The secret is to choose your philosophical advisers well. Also, this process of selecting the relevant support is a part of the narrative design.
When we realize the impact of these radical diverse approaches, we can draw complete different scenarios for our daily life: our habits, our way of working, learning and creating. So we could make a Hobbesian techno world and a Rousseau like techno world.
We could even realize some Renaissance dreams, letting the robots do our repetitive thinking.
We can make any number of scenarios depending on the dilemmas and diversity we formulated. These scenarios will be proposals in a text, video, audio, drama, simulation or movie-format. These scenarios are a result of careful deliberations and philosophizing. They are always attractive, extreme, plausible and coherent!
Based on the body of knowledge we have developed we choose a preferred scenario or a preferred future.
This process is a communication event where the hearts and minds of all the stakeholders converge into a value-driven purpose.
8. Embodying the narrative
When we have chosen a scenario as our preferred future, we have our new narrative. In this phase, we transform ourselves as if we are living in this desired scenario. We rebuild our inner selves, using other lines of reasoning, other priorities, and values. The exercise is to imagine and incorporate the narrative fully. In the group, we will communicate and act according to the new lines of reasoning.
We can have several dialogues alongside the lines of the new assumptions. We can also observe the inner transformations that take place as a consequence of this. We can do all sorts of experiments which are in agreement with the new building blocks.
Artistic experiments can be very effective to embody this new reality. For an organization, you can create new ways of habits and rituals. What are the golden rules in this scenario? These can be simple rules that mark the difference with the past. The change from a culture in which you were a good employer if you could deliver secure outcomes and avoid risks into a culture where you can win a price when you can demonstrate how to learn from your errors, is a clear example.
A culture where everybody agrees with the leader into a culture where you are motivated to disagree is another one.
At a personal level, you can change the narrative that you are always guilty, and that man is sinful, into the one where we are here to enjoy life. How would the new scenario influences your feelings and thinking processes? How would you experience your body? How would you consider objects and physical stuff? How do we see consciousness? What sort of meaning would we create in this narrative?
In this phase, we act like artists who trespass the boundaries of reality and design new ones in material and mental ways.
9. Concrete outputs
In the preferred future narrative we can imagine a new model of human being and a new model of interactions between humans. We can translate the values and the meanings into concrete habits, actions, feelings, and products.
We develop all sort of elements that are a consequence of the imagination of new desires. Suppose that we have a new scenario where learning becomes a value in itself, where we enjoy learning as we enjoy good food, we can see the need for new sorts of centers where you can enjoy this. Connected to this products can be developed all projected in a not yet existed reality.
You can say that the products bear with it the world it supposes.
Complete new light can be shed on your potential approach to your clients: we do not react to the explicitly expressed needs of the client, but we give proposals for new needs and new desires.
The objective of Socratic Design: creating new meaning for our lives.