Another compelling TED talk that prompted me to reflect on my own experiences of the value of debate, and share them (and the video) with you in this post. I particularly love the alliteration Julia Dhar uses, which gives her talk a lyrical quality. One of the YouTube commenters described it as a “well structured, rehearsed and delivered speech”, and I completely agree – you can tell that she is a practised debater herself given how she constructs and conveys her ideas.
As Julia says: “There is so much that the practice of debate has to offer us for how to disagree productively. We should bring it to our workplaces, our conferences, our city council meetings – the principles of debate can transform the way that we talk to one another. To empower us to stop talking and to start listening. To stop dismissing and to start persuading. To stop shutting down and to start opening our minds.”
Read more to uncover two personal anecdotes about debates – my own real-life experience at high school, and how I used debates to strengthen the culture in a team I was building. This post also shares the techniques Julia offers to reshape how we talk with each other so we can disagree constructively, and provides a link to her talk.
The nature of a “debate”
At the core of a debate is a controversial idea, put forward so that one group speaks in favour of the idea, and another against. Each of the teams is allocated a side to debate i.e. they don’t choose their sides, so their personal views on the topic are separated from the position they are required to defend – in some cases they might align, but in others they won’t. One commenter on the YouTube version of Julia’s talk explains it as: “...You need to jump into those shoes and see through the lens of the person who believes that to be true. What better way to build empathy.” Julia expands on the nature of debate as follows, explaining that it “requires that we engage with the conflicting idea, directly, respectfully, face-to-face. The foundation of debate is rebuttal. The idea that you make a claim and I provide a response, and you respond to my response. Without rebuttal, it's not debate, it's just pontificating.”
I’ll illustrate this using my first anecdote: when I was at high school, I was able to participate in a regional debate competition – the specific debate was on the topic of tolerance for different religions, an excellent example of a controversial idea. Between schools, it was held in our auditorium with a panel of expert judges. My personal challenge was that it was a debate in Afrikaans, competing against first-language speakers, while it is a second language for me. Fortunately my teammate was a native Afrikaans speaker. He was the only one in our year though, and I was very definitely the weaker representative for our school. I’m sure you can guess the outcome… the prepared section (i.e. opening remarks) went okay and I understood the arguments of our opponents, but I found the rebuttal particularly tough, including responding quickly in my second language - we didn’t progress to the next round.
That learning experience gave me a deeper understanding of the principles of debate, including (by design) separation of your personal views from the position you motivate for, and the importance of really listening to the arguments made by others. Years later I used the technique of debating to encourage a culture of respectful challenge in a new team I was leading and growing.
As a team of roughly 5-10 people at that stage, we arranged regular debates on topics of relevance to our function. We randomly allocated the teams, ensuring a balance of levels of seniority and expertise on each topic. One example of a topic was investment guarantees: one side argued that they are valuable/worthwhile for customers, while the other argued that they are not. The practice of debating respectfully with each other (as an alternative to standard team meetings) had a number of advantages:
More on intellectual humility
Julia explains that Mark Leary, neuroscientist and psychologist, and his colleagues have found that those who are able to practise this skill “are more capable of evaluating a broad range of evidence, are more objective when they do so, and become less defensive when confronted with conflicting evidence”. She adds that these are “all attributes that we want in our bosses, colleagues, discussion partners, decision-makers, all virtues that we would like to claim for ourselves.”
More on Julia herself and her reflections on debating
In her talk, Julia describes her love of arguing as a young girl and her own growth from her “very shaky entry into the world of debate” at age 10, at Canberra Girls Grammar School, to over many years working really hard at it, and becoming skilled at the technical craft of debate: “I went on to win the World Schools Debating Championships three times.”
She goes on to say that “...It wasn't until I started coaching debaters, persuaders who are really at the top of their game, that I actually got it. The way that you reach people is by finding common ground. It's by separating ideas from identity and being genuinely open to persuasion. Debate is a way to organise conversations about how the world is, could, should be.”
Julia reiterates the importance of beginning from shared reality: “...I had originally imagined that the most successful debaters, really excellent persuaders, must be great at going to extremes. They must have some magical ability to make the polarising palatable. And it took me a really long time to figure out that the opposite is actually true. People who disagree the most productively start by finding common ground, no matter how narrow it is. They identify the thing that we can all agree on and go from there: the right to an education, equality between all people, the importance of safer communities. What they're doing is inviting us into what psychologists call shared reality. And shared reality is the antidote to alternative facts. The conflict, of course, is still there. That's why it's a debate. Shared reality just gives us a platform to start to talk about it.”
My mission in life is to help us disagree productively. To find ways to bring truth to light, to bring new ideas to life. I think – I hope – that there is a model for structured disagreement that's... mutually respectful and assumes a genuine desire to persuade and be persuaded.”
And to conclude this post, here is her roughly 15 minute talk:
...Nothing is stopping us from pressing pause on a parade of keynote speeches, the sequence of very polite panel discussions, and replacing some of that with a structured debate. All of our conferences could have, at their centrepiece, a debate over the biggest, most controversial ideas in the field. Each of our weekly team meetings could devote 10 minutes to a debate about a proposal to change the way in which that team works. And as innovative ideas go, this one is both easy and free. You could start tomorrow.”