Scott and Online Great Books member John Syc, a therapist and LCSW from Hamden, CT, discuss the concept of authenticity in speech and discussion, and the various ways people sabotage their participation in discussions. Not only do people rob themselves of value with inauthentic speech, they also do disservice to the group. The Socratic model relies upon honest engagement in conversation, and learning to become vulnerable in voicing one’s thoughts and opinions is an important aspect of discovery and learning.
Authenticity could be described as speaking your mind in a genuine manner, that is, expressing your thoughts in spite of the potential reactions of others. To dispense with PC culture, as it were. The seminars at Online Great Books are intended to provide a space for exploring and testing your values and ideas through discussion. Therefore participation in the discussion — more importantly, genuine participation in the discussion — is critical. The seminars rely on the idea of “learning through doing” and the seminar leaders explicitly act as guides rather than teachers. They serve as mediators and perhaps mentors, with the goal of helping you discover and hone your own ideas, no theirs.
Nevertheless, there are many inauthentic ways people participate in discussions. Perhaps the most common example is the devil’s advocate, the person who takes a contrary stance. While the devil’s advocate is an important role, one which both seminar leaders and participants will sometimes assume to challenge and hone the ideas of another, it is tempting to hide behind the position to avoid voicing a strong opinion of your own. Other people playing the devil’s advocate may do so merely out of disagreeableness or combativeness, rather than a genuine attempt to challenge others for their growth. They misrepresent themselves, and thus alienate themselves from the group, having deprived the group of forming a real connection to them.
The silent participant is another offender. Saying nothing at all is better than saying something which might offend, the thinking goes. Or perhaps anxiety or self-esteem prevents them from voicing an opinion that may be challenged, attacked, or ignored. Either way they rob themselves of the value of the discussion, to explore their values and understand why they believe what they believe. Furthermore, they deprive the group of its lifeblood, discussion, and undermine the very thing they thought they would preserve by not speaking up in the first place.
That’s not to say that silence can sometimes be authentic. Occasionally, you may not have anything to say, or may not have taken anything of value from the text, in which case playing the role of observer accurately represents your experience. If this is you, Scott encourages you to speak up and say that. Likely there are other group members who feel the same way, and stating your experience can spark conversation that explores why the group had the experience, and what that reveals about the text in question.
You can find out more about John and his therapy practice at: https://www.johnsyc.com
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