I became more familiar with *Socrates when I was living in Tokyo, Japan using the Socratic Method to teach businessmen how to use the English they spoke more conversationally. Today Socrates came to mind when I shared the Test Of Three with a friend who is developing a philosophy of her own.
“Socrates, do you know what I just heard about one of your students?”
“Wait a moment,” Socrates replied. “Before you tell me I’d like you to pass a little test. It’s called the Test of Three.”
“Test of Three?”
“That’s right,” Socrates continued. “Before you talk to me about my student let’s take a moment to test what you’re going to say. The first test is Truth. Have you made absolutely sure that what you are about to tell me is true?”
“No,” the man said, “actually I just heard about it.”
“All right,” said Socrates. “So you don’t really know if it’s true or not. Now let’s try the second test, the test of Goodness. Is what you are about to tell me about my student something good?”
“No, on the contrary…”
“So,” Socrates continued, “you want to tell me something bad about him even though you’re not certain it’s true?”
The man shrugged, a little embarrassed.
Socrates continued. “You may still pass though, because there is a third test – the filter of Usefulness. Is what you want to tell me about my student going to be useful to me?”
“No, not really.”
“Well,” concluded Socrates, “if what you want to tell me is neither True nor Good nor even Useful, why tell it to me at all?”
Socrates made a critical mistake!
I can see the wisdom in not wanting to pollute his mind with rumors and conjecture. I’m very much of the same mind. Still, I would propose these questions as things to ask as well, or as replacements for the original questions.
1) Who told you?
This cuts directly to the heart of the issue and allows us to give context to what we hear. It also puts the person who wants to give you information in what should not be a difficult position, but often is. It establishes a chain of custody for what you are about to hear.
I’m often privy to lots of information, both personally and privately. I’ve been able to avoid being manipulated by asking people who bring me information “Who told you what you are about to tell me?” before they can even finish the first sentence.
Miraculously, more than half the time the answer is “Never mind.”
What I’ve found is that very few people want to be held accountable for what they say. When you put them in a position to realize that you may do your own fact checking, liars evaporate and grumble as they fade away.
This is also a great way to force people to expose themselves as insidious troublemakers that need to be cut from my social and professional circle.
2) When did they tell you?
The agent provocateur that tried to manipulate Socrates said he “Just heard.” That could mean this year, or 5 minutes ago. It’s a thin, malleable way to measure time that is not specific.
I’d ask for a specific time.
Remember, it’s not enough to be able to state accurately what you know and where you got the information. Without a timetable, the context can be skewed. Many an opportunist has waited until it was strategically advantageous to reveal something that could have helped others.
3) Don’t you have a history of gossip/snitching?
If the person bringing me this information is a righteous man, he will be angry and offended! This is the most difficult part of my Watts Triple Filter.
I will have already taken into account whether I think this person is someone I should listen to. It’s interesting to see how people who do have a history of being information brokers and manipulators react to that question. The usual replies are some variation of “Well I am only trying to help!”, “This time it’s different,” and/or “How dare you question my authenticity?!”
How these questions help me!
If I have someone who comes to me with information they:
1) Have no problem with me checking out on my own.
2) Gave me in a timely fashion.
3) Are willing to tell me specifically where the information originated.
4) Is someone who has no history of speaking poorly of others in real life or online.
If they meet all the above criteria, I have found someone who may be on the path to being a true friend.
I value, cherish, and protect these people. There are very few of them in the world.
*Note: This story is also attributed to an unnamed Arab scholar. I attributed it to Socrates because I found far more references. Still, just because lots of people say it, doesn’t mean it is true.
Be sure to check out the talk I had with Glen Brauer, who heads Philosophy Dinners!
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