Room for debate

To understand how you think, take a tip from Socrates

For better self-reflection—and teamwork—try turning outwards, not in
You look due for a dispute.
You look due for a dispute.
Photo: Anastasios71 (Shutterstock)
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Say I’ve asked you to make a slapdash sketch of self-reflection. What does it look like?

After grabbing a pen and paper, apologizing that you’re not much of an artist, and beginning to draw, you might arrive at a figure not unlike Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker. There’s a person propped upon a palm, leaning furtively into thought. A gaze steered towards the ground, uninterrupted from the world around them. A brow furrowed in contemplation. Even their body is curved inwards, like they’re craning for a look inside.

We tend to think of self-reflection as introspection—or turning inward to search through how you feel, map how you think, and consider how you arrive at conclusions. But actually, the idea of introspection is a relatively modern one, says Dr. Mitchell Green, a professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut. He teaches a course called Know Thyself: The Value and Limits of Self-Knowledge, based on his book of the same name. And self-reflection, he says, doesn’t necessarily have to happen inside ourselves.

Instead, if you’re looking to understand your thinking, he suggests looking farther back in our philosophic forebears. Try taking a cue from ancient Greece. Instead of looking inwards, we should turn out.

“When Socrates and Plato talked about self-knowledge, they didn’t mean anything like introspection,” says Green. Rather, they used what’s known as dialectic: back-and-forth arguments between debaters ready to challenge each others’ ideas. Consider it a lesson in the opposite of introspection. If you want to get to know your ideas, the ancient Greeks might say, you should try to convince someone else of them.

How we can benefit from argument, according to the ancient Greeks

“As Socrates leans to friends in the marketplace and says, What’s your view about truth and love and wisdom?, that was an enterprise to start to get his own ideas figured out,” Green says. We can take a cue from that enterprise, too. Think of it as discussion that draws out your thinking.

In arguing your ideas, rather than reflecting on them, you’ll meet challenges to your thinking and formulate responses. And the agility you’ll develop can spur you into stronger ideas.

Dialectic done right, Green says, helps you hone your position. Rather than thinking in, you talk out—and get real-time feedback on how you construct your ideas. In that, you can learn not only what you think, but also how you think.

What teams can gain from debate, too

Dialectic is good for understanding how we think, but has big benefits for teams, too. In studying how groups could best come up with creative ideas, a landmark study in 2004 found that debate was the best tool.

Participants were divided into teams and told to come up with ideas for the same challenge: reducing congestion in the Bay Area. The teams, however, were given different sets of conditions. Some were given little rules beyond the initial challenge. Some were given instructions to brainstorm. And the last were given instructions to debate and critique.

The result? Teams that debated their ideas produced, on average, 25% more ideas than the others.

“[Research shows] that dissent, debate and competing views have positive value, stimulating divergent and creative thought,” the researchers wrote. “Perhaps more importantly, we suggest that the permission to criticize and debate may encourage an atmosphere conducive to idea generation.”

Welcoming constructive argument, they add, can lead us to come up with ideas together. So we don’t just benefit from debate as our own means of thinking: we can take it to our teams for collective wins, too.

The pitfalls of persuasion

That’s not to say that dialectic, debate, and discussion only hold net positives for honing your thinking. There are dangers when your conversations don’t operate on constructive grounds.

One team of cognitive researchers recently coined the term persuasion fatigue for those moments. The fatigue, they say, is the frustration you feel when you fail to convince someone else of your ideas (say, that you really should get that covid booster).

“The whole experience may feel like trying to guide someone on a journey when they refuse to follow,” the researchers write for Scientific American. “They drag their heels, wander off in the wrong direction, and throw away the map you made for them.”

That frustration makes it harder to successfully navigate challenging conversations—let alone use them to understand your thinking. It’s important, the authors suggest, to acknowledge the frustration and the fatigue, then consider why your discussion’s stalled. After taking a pause to reflect, you’ll feel reenergized to discuss again.

How to hold a healthy debate

So how do you try dialectic for yourself? For one, hearken back to the Greeks, and think of your debate as questioning, not combat.

“[Dialectic] requires an attitude of patient questioning under non-threatening circumstances, usually done alone or among trusted friends and associates,” writes Andrew Gurevich in Critical Thinking, where he examines critique and creativity in argument. “The primary purpose is a search for the truth.”

In other terms, it’s not an argument, but an inquiry. Arguing to inquire helps us form opinions and reason our way through conflicts, but it doesn’t have to be contentious. Think of dialectic as a dynamic force that helps you hone how you think—and helps your partner hone theirs, too.

In short: if you want to get to know how you think, take that thinking out of your head and place it in front of others. Discuss it, debate it, and defend it.