What Congress can Learn from Einstein and Socrates about Bipartisanship

The physicist David Bohm, while researching the lives of Einstein, Heisenberg, and Bohr, noticed that their incredible breakthroughs took place through simple, open and honest conversation. He observed, for instance, that Einstein and his colleagues spent years freely corresponding and brainstorming with each other. During these interactions, they exchanged and dialogued about ideas which later became the foundations of modern physics. They exchanged ideas without trying to change the other’s mind and without bitter argument. They always paid attention to each other’s views and established an extraordinary professional fellowship. Other scientists of the time, in contrast, wasted their careers bickering over petty nuances of opinion and promoting their own ideas at the expense of others. They mistrusted their colleagues, covered up weaknesses, and were reluctant to openly share their work.

Why were Einstein and his associates able to collaborate so effectively? How were they able to avoid the mistrust, suspicion, and covering up that which often occurs when a group of people attempt to collaborate together? Why were they able to share their work openly and honestly with each other, while their contemporaries did not? What was their secret?

Einstein and his associates had discovered and used a set of ancient Greek principles of intragroup communication, which was developed by Socrates. Socrates and other Greek philosophers would sit around brainstorming and debating various issues. Their discussions, however, rarely got out of hand. Although hot tempers emerged, the participants were bound by seven principles of discussion Socrates established to maintain a sense of collegiality. Socrates called these principles Koinonia which means “spirit of fellowship.” The basic principles were:
1) Establish dialogue.
2) Exchange ideas.
3) Don’t argue.
4) Don’t interrupt.
5) Listen carefully.
6) Clarify your thinking.
7) Be honest.

The following are guidelines for establishing Koinonia in your group:

Put together a small group to serve as a pilot test. Meet at the same time once every week. Tell people to talk about whatever they want to talk about. There is no set agenda. There may not be any noticeable results the first few sessions. And people may gripe that the sessions are a waste of time. Hold firm and tell the participants that the purpose of the sessions is to build teamwork.

In Greek, the word dialogue means a “talking through.” Socrates and other Greek philosophers used dialogue to establish and uncover hidden truths. Socrates believed that the key to establishing dialogue is to exchange ideas without trying to change the other person’s mind. This is not the same as discussion which, from its Latin root, means to “dash to pieces.” (In many groups, even the polite ones, the purpose often is to “dash” the other person’s ideas in order to promote your own.)

The basic rules of dialogue established by Socrates and his friends are “Don’t argue,” “Don’t interrupt,” and “Listen carefully.” Participants should focus entirely upon whoever is speaking. This will be difficult at first. With practice, however, communication will become truly two-way.

To do this, you first must suspend all untested assumptions. You might think that certain people are not creative. When you think that, you’re not likely to give their ideas fair thought. Check your assumptions and look at everybody and everything  with an unbiased view.

Say what you think, even if your thoughts are controversial. Once people realize they know what you thinking, they will be comfortable and open around you.

Follow these steps diligently and Koinonia will follow, sooner or later. Most people naturally like to interact. Koinonia can help remove barriers which prevent people from collaborating honestly. When a spirit of Koinonia prevails, people are less likely to withhold information. As a result, intragroup communications are enhanced and ideas flow more freely within a group.


Michael Michalko is the author of the highly acclaimed Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius; ThinkPak: A Brainstorming Card Deck and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work.


One response to this post.

  1. Great thinking


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