Using Your Mind to the Utmost

An Interview with Ronald Gross, author of Socrates' Way
By Vern Burkhardt
What do fifth century BC Athens and 2008 New York City have in common? A man could, and can, be seen dressed in a toga and wearing a headband, exploring complex ideas by asking probing questions of his fellow citizens.

The goal was, and is, to move away from small talk towards exhilarating, important conversations; to expose “muddled” thinking; and to explore ways to rectify the flaws in our lives, culture and society.

Ronald Gross is the 2008 version of Socrates. He appears regularly at major conventions and conferences.

In his book Socrates’ Way Ronald Gross describes seven master keys for making maximum use of one’s mind—all of which have the added benefit of keeping our brain muscle in peak form.

Ronald GrossThe seven master keys are:

  • Know thyself

  • Ask great questions

  • Think for yourself

  • Challenge convention

  • Grow with friends

  • Speak the truth

  • Strengthen your soul

Vern Burkhardt (VB): What is the single greatest benefit you have gotten from following “Socrates’ Way”?

Ronald Gross: To have the courage to be myself—I think that’s his greatest gift for each of us. That courage enabled him to lead one of the happiest lives ever lived, and to make his unique contribution to his society and to those who followed.

Socrates is a model we can all follow—not a divine figure, but a homely guy. He lived well on his very modest income. Today we’d call it a “sustainable” lifestyle. He enjoyed pleasures that did not harm himself or others, and achieved his personal destiny.

VB: What are some of the most challenging issues or topics in our world today that could benefit from Socratic dialogue?

Ronald Gross: I just spent a whole week having conversations on ten such questions with people throughout New York City—on the streets, in public spaces like office building atria, parks, and libraries. This was part of global Conversation Week 2008. You can read a full account of my adventures.

The ten Great Questions, which were selected by 1,500 people in 39 countries, are:

  1. How can we best prepare our children for the future?

  2. What does sustainability look like to you? How do we get there?

  3. How do humans need to adapt to survive the changes predicted for this century?

  4. How do we shift from “me” to “we” on both the local and global levels?

  5. How can you, as Gandhi said, be the change that you want to see in the world?

  6. What kind of economic structures can best support a shift to sustainable living?

  7. How should we re-invent the political process so that people feel that they have a voice?

  8. What kind of leadership does the world need now?

  9. How can we balance our personal needs with the most pressing needs of our community and the larger world?

  10. What can we do to reduce or eliminate violence in the world?

VB: What are your secrets or approaches to ensuring you ask good questions of yourself and others?

Ronald Gross: Ask “open” questions which invite discussion, rather than “closed” ones that can be answered Yes or No. Good ones are:

“Can you tell me more about that? I find what you’re saying fascinating.”

“What brought you to that conclusion?”

“What is the most important thing to know or do, to succeed in your business?”

Focus on ideas or values that you care most about. For many people, these include Love, Success, Health, Fulfillment, and Excellence—to give some examples. Ask others how they define these terms—and really listen to, and discuss their answers. When you have done this several times, you’ll be ready for a juicy dialogue with 3 or 4 people on that topic. Share the varied definitions, and re-formulate your concept to embody what you have learned.

VB: Many writers describe the numbing effects of the media, the “dumbing down” of thought, or in Socrates’ metaphor, living in a cave, seeing only shadows on the wall, like couch potatoes today. Why do you think so many people get caught up in watching so much television, in permitting the media to interpret their world?

Ronald Gross: We succumb because it’s easy, it’s enjoyable, and it’s acceptable to “veg out” and immerse ourselves in the media. The “hidden persuaders” spend millions to figure out how to capture our interest, and millions more to persuade us to pay attention. So it’s no wonder we succumb. In such a polluted media environment, we must make a calculated and robust effort to keep our minds independent and active.

VB: Since the adversarial model, in which we have been educated and which is used in the legal system and in many business dealings, obscures the truth, why do you think it persists in democratic societies? And do you think it is possible, desirable or necessary for us to change from using this adversarial approach in so many aspects of our lives?

Ronald Gross: The adversarial model persists in our culture because we are competitive, because of its status in jurisprudence, and because conflict is dramatic. We are drawn to the idea that if we have a battle royal over the conference table, the “last idea standing” must be the best one. But it may just be the loudest one, the one with the most stamina, or the one holding an ace up its sleeve.

We can transcend this adversarial trap through true conversation and dialogue, and through communication techniques such as Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats.

VB: You say one of the most powerful ways to think for yourself is to “go creative”. Could you talk a bit about what this means?

Ronald Gross: Use creativity techniques, such as those richly available on the IdeaConnection website, to question your experiences, generate alternative interpretations, and explore diverse options. Use wit, humor, and satire to see things from a contrarian point of view.

VB: Socrates’ cave represents the world of our “received beliefs”. We have ideas, attitudes, and opinions that have been programmed into us by our upbringing, schooling, culture, and social and media environment. How can we encourage the electorate in democratic societies to take the time to learn about its blind spots, to re-examine and change its beliefs rather than be influenced by its biases and by the influence of the media?

Ronald Gross: To foster awareness of our blind spots, we should support and use alternative media, minority viewpoints, and counter-establishment thinking. Private foundations, generous donors, and state subvention without control, like the BBC in England, should be providing funding.

VB: Are you optimistic that if a majority of people took this approach they would make better choices when they participate in the political process, either as voters or politicians?

Socrates WayRonald Gross: Absolutely! Most people’s access to innovative, contrarian perspectives is severely limited, and this limits their vision of what is possible. Social science research confirms that we can best avoid Groupthink and other pathologies in our thinking and decision-making by being open to the views of others, especially when they challenge our own.

VB: You talk about the folly of accepting hand-me-down thoughts and prefabricated ideas—the “shadows” that are the proverbs we heard from our parents and others who have influenced us. Why are proverbs so powerfully and persistently accepted as “truisms”?

Ronald Gross: Because they enable us to think we are making a real decision, when we’re really just justifying our unthinking prejudice.

Almost all proverbs have their opposites: “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread”. The opposite is “He who hesitates is lost”. So when you make your decision on the basis of one of these, you are failing to ask the right question: Is this a “Fools rush in….” situation, or a “He who hesitates…” situation?

VB: I was very interested in your comments that we live in the “cave” of our occupation, profession or job. Does this partially explain why so many seemingly learned people become attached to the status quo and do not continue to question and learn?

Ronald Gross: Yes! We live in “silos”—very tall, very narrow, and very separate worlds of thought and practice. We must endeavor to break out of them, explore others than our own, and thus make better decisions.

VB: While many believe the role of the university is Socratic, to unsettle and oppose, to test all orthodoxies, to offer routes by which young minds may travel from one culture or value system to another, it appears the general reality is quite different. However there is a seminar at Columbia University in New York City that deliberately follows the Socratic method and has been doing so since WWII. You have been leading these seminars in recent years. Why do you think this seminar has been so successful for so long?

Ronald Gross: The University Seminars have been so successful, intellectually, for several reasons. They include both thinkers and practitioners. They draw members from diverse specialties and different institutions. And they are focused on real-world challenges rather than academic careerist topics.

VB: I understand you also conduct Socratic conversations with students at Columbia University. What benefits do the students get, and what benefits or joy do you receive from leading them, and do the conversations remain interesting to you? Do they always explore new facets of issues?

Ronald Gross: Students keep coming, despite their hectic schedules, because they relish an opportunity to talk about ideas and issues outside of a formal academic situation, such as a classroom. I enjoy them tremendously because we explore exciting and important subjects in a free-wheeling way. Some recent topics have been:

  • Patriotism, on 9/11;

  • Love, on Valentine’s Day;

  • Challenging ‘Ableism’ during Disabilities Awareness Week;

  • Truth vs. ‘Truthiness’—with a tip o’ the hat to Steven Cobert;

  • Consumed?! On the perils of over-spending on the wrong things—personally and socially; and

  • Bullshit—based on a best-selling book by a Princeton philosophy professor.

VB: Like others, you observe that the years spent in classrooms often stifle, rather than nurture, youth’s innate curiosity and boldness, its simple and powerful inquiries. Should Socrates’ methods be required learning for everyone studying to be a school, college or university teacher? What difference do you think it would make to our educational system?

Ronald Gross: I would prefer to see such opportunities offered as an option, rather than required, so participation would be voluntary, and therefore healthier. That way, prospective teachers would learn how much intellectual energy and creativity is released in such situations, and would likely want to build them into their teaching. Doing that would make for more joyful, powerful learning experiences for students.

VB: It seems to me that the conversation at cocktail, and indeed most, parties tends not to go beyond small talk. Do you boycott this type of event, especially if you know the majority of the people attending will not want to discuss any issue in depth, or do you take it as a challenge or opportunity to convert them to the Athenian-style?

Ronald Gross: I appreciate the need for small talk, to lubricate social interaction. But some groups carry it too far. “We descend to meet,” Thoreau noted. And indeed social chit-chat does tend to sink to the lowest “common denominator” level.

I’ve developed a few provocative techniques to stir things up, which I try to use respectfully and convivially. For instance, at openings of art shows, at which I have noticed that no one seems to want to talk about the art, I wear a day-glo badge which says Could you help me appreciate your painting? It usually leads to some wonderful conversations with participating artists. I got the idea from Picasso, who used to ask at Gertrude Stein’s salons, apropos one of the paintings, “Racontez moi cela”—“Tell me about it”.

VB: You participate in Socrates Salon discussions. What do you find most rewarding about them? Can you tell us about one or two especially interesting or inspiring conversations?

Ronald Gross: My wife and I conduct a monthly Conversation—the longest-running one in the U.S. we’re told, at our local public library. They keep our minds keen in three ways.

  • Before each session, we’re keyed up to notice and discuss the up-coming topic, such as our next one—“Dumb and Dumber: Are Americans Inherently Anti-Intellectual”?

  • Then, at the session itself, we are stimulated by the sharply-expressed diverse viewpoints.

  • And, afterwards, we are usually impelled to talk more, read more, and think more than we would otherwise have done.

VB: You say we need gadflies—dissidents, whistleblowers, mavericks, revolutionaries. But even in democratic societies they are often viewed as a threat, and many have been persecuted, imprisoned, exiled or killed. It could be said Socrates was killed because he was a threatening gadfly who chose to tell the truth. How can we learn to encourage and accept the positive role of gadflies in our societies?

Ronald Gross: We should personally honor them for their courage and devotion to our shared values. As TIME magazine did a couple of years ago when it featured as Persons of the Year three women who had exposed malfeasance at WorldCom, the FBI, and Enron.

And of course we should protect them legally and economically.

VB: You talk about the impressive role Richard Feynman played as a gadfly on the Rogers Commission, which investigated the Challenger Shuttle disaster. Who are some other gadflies you have admired for the role they played in getting to the truth or in promoting change?

Ronald Gross: Most of the thinkers we now revere as “the great tradition”, were gadflies and mavericks in their day; for example Moses, Jesus, Freud, Marx, Einstein, and Darwin. And some of the most admired thought-leaders in business and the professions today, such as Peter Senge and Tom Peters, are self-declared “gadflies”.

VB: You describe Socrates’ thinking style as slow and careful. He preferred verbal communication and he challenged the “right answer” by exploring alternatives. Do you think this style would give us superior decision making and problem solving in our fast paced corporate world, and for what types of decisions? How do we convince our corporate executives to take the time for this approach?

Ronald Gross: Clear, creative, precise thinking is undoubtedly better than breathless, knee-jerk, confused thinking. Few are the situations where speed is of the essence.

I have consulted for emergency rooms of hospitals, and run into situations where a patient has inexplicably stopped breathing, and all the specialists are running around like crazy doing their different things, when suddenly the doc in charge shouts: "Stop"—we must be missing something.” And it turns out that taking that “creative pause” reveals the key to saving the patient’s life—even in a situation where nano-seconds count! This made me realize that there are almost no situations in the world of business or the professions, in which we cannot profit from taking a moment to think!

VB: You advise that the Socratic method is an effective technique for leaders. In what way, and why, do you think it is so effective?

Ronald Gross: Having genuine conversations with colleagues, staff, clients, customers, vendors and others, invariably leads to greater awareness of success and failure factors. Asking many good questions, in the right way, is a proven leadership style.

VB: Do you find that the 2008 version of Socrates, as portrayed by you, can inspire and guide business leaders to use his methods profitably?

Ronald Gross: Socrates has keynoted conferences and conventions for a wide range of corporations, associations, and governmental organizations, ranging from the YMCAs of North America, to the Telecommunications Resellers Association. He’s gotten them talking together in more productive ways about enhancing their performance and success, while upholding the values they hold most dear.

Recently, he shook up the officers of a software development company in New York City’s “Silicon Alley” when he strode through their offices in a quest for the “root cause” of a client melt-down that had occurred two days before.

Challenging each executive with “Why did this happen?” Socrates was able to get to the bottom of the costly calamity when he revealed that a key company operative had not been given vital information because one of his superiors felt “he’s really not smart enough to be working here.”

On another occasion Socrates was introduced as a special guest to the board of a national voluntary health organization struggling with a major decision about its public position on a controversial issue. Socrates conducted a conversation which enabled the board members to resolve their own conflicting views on the issue and come to a consensus.

VB: In addition to asking good questions and really listening to people’s responses, you advise using individual and organizational experts we can trust. What qualities will help us identify someone as a trustworthy expert?

Ronald Gross: The best criterion is the judgment of those who have worked with the supposed expert over an extended period of time. Use the 360-degree approach. Survey at least 6 people you respect who have had experience with him or her.

VB: You say we loose ninety percent of our best ideas if we don’t immediately make note of them because our memories are not built to move spontaneous thoughts into long-term memory. What methods do you use to capture your spontaneous thoughts and creative ideas?

Ronald Gross: I never am without a device to take and make notes, whether it’s a pad and pen or a digital device. And I mean never. I’ve adopted the idea of Roger von Oech, of having in my shower, a plastic clip board and grease pencil, since some great ideas usually come during a shower.

VB: On your website you say that for the past twenty years you’ve followed Socrates’ way as a spiritual path. Frederick and Mary Ann Brussat say on their website on spiritual literacy that you’ve used diverse means to help get in touch with your daimon. Could you please talk about what you do to follow Socrates’ way as a spiritual path?

Ronald Gross: I strive to follow his principles, to know myself, ask great questions, grow with friends, speak the truth, and free my mind. Usually I fall short. But whenever I do I try to learn why, and to-apply the principles to doing better the next time.

VB: Do you agree with Helen Fisher who says in The First Sex that women have seven Socratic traits which will put them at the forefront, and that tomorrow’s world will need the female mind? Do you think Hillary Clinton, or other women in leadership positions, possesses these seven traits?

Ronald Gross: Yes. I have a chapter in Socrates’ Way on “The Socratic Spirit in Women”.

I note that women characteristically:
  • think about things in context, rather than in isolation;

  • have greater people-savvy;

  • are more patient;

  • have superior verbal abilities; and

  • have a penchant for cooperating and reaching consensus.

Some women who possess many of these qualities are journalist Chistiane Amanpour, writer Maya Angelou, and politician Carol Mosely-Braun. As to Hilary Clinton specifically, she certainly exemplifies some of these characteristics, such as verbal abilities, patience, thinking contextually, and striving to work cooperatively.

One of the limitations of Socrates’ time and place, which he resisted, was that it denied women their rightful place in society and culture. We must not make that mistake.

VB: The late Professor Gregory Vlastos concluded, after extensively studying Socrates, that he lived and died a happy man. How could a condemned man, who had so much to live for, die a happy man when forced to drink poison?

Ronald Gross: Because in choosing to do that, he was affirming his deepest values, achieving his highest goal, and bringing his life to a satisfying conclusion. If he had fled into exile—he had that choice—we would not remember him after all these centuries. He would have lived ten years longer, but he would not have fulfilled his destiny. To be Socrates!

VB: Based on the feedback you have received about your book, do you feel it has been successful in meeting your purpose of awakening your readers to their full powers as thinking and ethical human beings?

Ronald Gross: The reviews, and even more important, the testimonies of readers on and other sites, evidences such awakenings. For example, Michael Gelb, author of the best-selling How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, wrote that the book “calls Socrates up from the past to invigorate and enrich our lives today.”

VB: Are there any aspects of the Socrates’ way that you see as being particularly appropriate for IdeaConnection readers—people looking for solutions and people looking to provide solutions, either collaboratively or individually?

Ronald Gross: Your IdeaConnection site is the best one I’ve found on the Internet, exemplifying the values, strategies, and spirit of Socrates. As we share, dialogue, and benefit from your resources, we are following in Socrates’ Way!

Socrates’ Way provides a plethora of ideas, suggestions and guidelines on how to ask “great” questions, to ask “powerful” questions and to engage in meaningful dialogue both at work and in our personal lives. That is Socrates’ way. It is the way leaders can become more effective in the workplace•by asking questions which get employees focused on what matters and thinking about solutions, welcoming questions from employees and co-workers, and practicing “active listening”. Like Socrates we should think of ourselves as thinkers and take steps to strengthen and improve our ability to think for ourselves.

In answer to the question I posed to Ronald Gross, I conclude that Socrates’ Way does go a long way toward awakening readers to their full powers as thinking and ethical human beings. The challenge is what we do once we are awakened.

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