“Are you a sophist?” I’ve been wrestling with that question for several weeks, at the invitation of Carol Sanford. Carol points out how many of us in the helping professions have fallen into the habit of trying to provide well-intended inspiration and advice to others at the expense of diminishing their capability. She likes to tell the story of Socrates’ awakening to what would often happen to those who listened to the Sophists preach in ancient Greece – people would leave inspired, and keep coming back for more. At a certain point, many of these “followers,” after seeing increasingly diminished returns, would become demoralized and convinced that they would never be able to reach the heights that were suggested in the speeches and sermons they heard. So Socrates took a different tack. He sought to help others grow by asking questions that helped them to move and take control of their own development.
Sophistry would appear to be an embedded expectation in the consulting field, as we expect these “experts” for hire to provide answers, certainly not more questions. The problem, however, is that when we move beyond the realm of simple and complicated problems, technical expertise alone is not so useful, and exhortations from the mountain top without a pathway to development fall flat in helping us deal with complexity. So the challenge to those of us who may feel the pull to be appreciated for our inspirational words is to ask, “What good are they, really?” If our intent is to help bring about real change, how might we shift from being the sage on a stage to a re-source (a word Carol uses to describe herself) who helps return people to themselves, their own deep yearnings, motivations, and willingness to evolve and do what they deem must be done?