Odd Socks Consulting - Lean - Agile - TOC

Agile and Columbo - Socratic Irony

Several years ago, a colleague said to me that he'd rumbled me, that I wasn't stupid after all, I was just pretending to be stupid!

Which was true ... to a certain extent, depending on the situation.  

I didn't know the name for it until a couple of years ago but I deliberately practice what is known as Socratic Irony, or "being like that detective Columbo from the TV":

This is “The dissimulation of ignorance practised by Socrates as a means of confuting an adversary”.[55] Socrates would pretend to be ignorant of the topic under discussion, to draw out the inherent nonsense in the arguments of his interlocutors. The Chambers Dictionary defines it as “a means by which a questioner pretends to know less than a respondent, when actually he knows more”.

Zoe Williams of The Guardian wrote: “The technique [of Socratic irony], demonstrated in the Platonic dialogues, was to pretend ignorance and, more sneakily, to feign credence in your opponent’s power of thought, in order to tie him in knots.”[56]

A more modern example of Socratic irony can be seen on the American crime fiction television film series, Columbo. The character Lt. Columbo is seemingly naïve and incompetent. His untidy appearance adds to this fumbling illusion. As a result, he is underestimated by the suspects in murder cases he is investigating. With their guard down and their false sense of confidence, Lt. Columbo is able to solve the cases leaving the murderers feeling duped and outwitted.[57]
— http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irony#Socratic_irony

My boss does the same.  He's often 2 or 3 or 4 steps ahead of me, but he blatantly (and transparently) pretends not to be so that I have to figure out (what he already knows) myself.

It's a useful way of helping other people think on their feet, which is important because they understand why they're doing something, rather than just doing it because X told them to.

It's also handy, for me, because, often, I really don't know what the answer is.  I often know the principle or general-direction of the answer (the Why and the What) but not the how.   

The difficult thing with this approach is that it's very, very difficult to not just say "do this!".  Very difficult.  Plus, if you're in an "expert" role, you're giving away a lot of your secrets and - if it bothers you - your power.  And, it's an approach that can sometimes antagonise other people immensely.

This "Socratic Irony" approach suits my personality, I think, but use it with care: Socrates was poisoned, eventually.

clarke chingComment