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The Three Way Test

Legend has it that one day the Greek philosopher Socrates (470 – 399 BC) was approached by someone trying to get his attention. The person called out, in the Greek vernacular of the time, “Hey Socrates, wait until you hear what I just learned about So-and-So”.  Before the guy could even say another word, Socrates stopped him and said something like “Wait.  Before you tell me this thing, it must pass the three-way test”. 

Wha?” replied the guy. 

“The Three-way test,” said Socrates, “First, do you know for sure this thing you’re about to tell me is the truth? Have you verified, fact-checked, double-checked, and tested for reasonableness as well as full-on accuracy?”   

“No, of course not, I just heard this.  I haven’t had time to check in to it.  I was in such a hurry to tell you about it that I haven’t made time to fact-check.  But wait until you hear!”

“Stop,” said Socrates, “I said it’s a Three-way Test.  That’s only one test, and it’s already failed.  How about the second test.  Is it good?  Is what you’re about to tell me good? Is it something you would want others to know about you, for example.  Is it uplifting and positive?  Does it include words of praise?”

For Pete’s sake, Socrates, you know that it’s the negative, dark, juicy stuff that makes for better headlines. This thing I’m about to tell you is anything but good, but boy is it good.  Wait until you hear!”

“Not yet,” said Socrates, “The Third test.  Is it useful?”

Useful?”, replied the guy, “well, no, it’s not useful. I mean it makes me feel better telling you, like I’m somehow ‘in the know’.  And it makes me feel like I’m way better than So-and-So. But no, other than that, it’s not useful. it’s just gossip, and that’s why I can’t wait to tell you.”

And Socrates responded with something like, “So you’re saying this thing you want to tell me about So-and-So is not proven to be true, it’s not good, and it’s not useful?  Why then, should I hear it?” 

And Socrates walked away, unwilling to listen.


Fast forward to today.  The reality is, Socrates is known for his teachings and his philosophy, but didn’t actually write much down. We can’t go back and make sure that the details of this anecdote are true, or even that they’re accurately attributed.  But the gist is useful, even if it’s only a parable.

Gossip is everywhere.  Bad news is everywhere.  “Fake news” is so ubiquitous that we now have a name for it, that simply didn’t exist a few years ago. 

All kinds of information comes at us on a regular basis.  Some is gruesome and gory.  Some provokes us to anger or indignation.  Some inspires us to greatness. 

If we’re watching TV, Netflix, surfing the web, or reading a book we can choose to control what comes at us. We can simply change the channel, close the browser, or shut the book.  We can even walk out of a movie theater when we realize that we don’t want to subject ourselves to that content any further.

But how do we listen better in a real-life, face-to-face kind of situation?  Is there a respectful way to get others to stop gossiping or stop putting unhelpful, untrue, crappy noise in our heads?  Perhaps tapping into the legendary Socratic three-way test is useful.

  1. Gently, but firmly, ask the speaker, “Before you speak, is what you’re about to say verified as truth?” If they say no, invite them to get more facts before continuing the statement.
  2. With a smile, ask the speaker, “Is what you’re about to say positive or good or uplifting? Are these words of praise?  Will speaking them be an improvement on silence?”  If they go silent, praise them for their ability to filter. Thank them for their restraint.
  3. And finally, get ready to take notes. Physically grab a pen and paper or open a new note on your device as if to take action, and ask the speaker, “Is what you’re about to say useful? Will it help us as we strive to make the world a better place?”  I can think of times for sure when I would have wanted to hear something that was useful, even if it wasn’t good.


What about when people are habitual gossipers?  What if they have created a reputation for themselves of gossiping or spreading “news” through whatever channels they have? 

None of us can control what others say to others.  It’s not up to me to change how they talk to other people; I don’t have that kind of control over people. 

A mentor used to say, “I can only coach the person in front of me.” I’ve always interpreted that in my own life to mean both that I can’t control the “other” party in a conversation you’re recounting to me. I also can’t control what you do when I’m not around. But when we’re in the same space, I can coach you through my actions, my words, and even through my willingness (or unwillingness) to listen.  I can coach you through my clarifying questions. This simple technique in listening can help coach others around us to fill our ears and our lives with less gossip.

What if we’re the ones who need to perform the three-way test on ourselves and our own messages before sharing them with others?  I’m guessing that somewhere in our lives, each one of us has been in a spot where, looking back, it would have been nice to have applied these filters before speaking.  Checking for accuracy, goodness, and usefulness would have helped prevent some down-stream pain from sentences we uttered or words we spoke in haste.  Yep, I think they work for self-correcting too.  Try these simple self-check questions before sharing that story or that tidbit of information…

  1. Is it true? What sources do I have, and how did I verify that it’s true?
  2. Is it good? In what way does this build others up or inspire greatness?
  3. Is it useful? How will this help my listener or make the world a better place?

How about you?  When can you apply the three-way test?  If you apply it successfully, give a quick shout out to Socrates, and carry on!


Topics: Business Skills & Business Acumen, Communication & Collaboration

Sinikka Waugh

About the Author

Sinikka Waugh

Sinikka Waugh is a recognized leader in understanding people and in adapting tools, techniques, and processes to meet the demands of the situation at hand. Since 2006, Sinikka has provided compassionate leadership in transformation initiatives. When she isn’t in front of a class, she enjoys putting her background in English and French Literature to work, by writing blogs about the subjects she teaches every day. Are you ready? If you are, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us!


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