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Using Debate to Find Common Ground in Our Disagreements

Agree to Disagree

Some days, it feels like the only thing we can agree on is that we can’t agree on anything. Public discourse is broken, and we feel that everywhere. From panelists on TV screaming at each other, to online arguments in social media, we may be so scared to get into an argument that we’re willing not to engage at all. Contempt has replaced conversation.


Julia Dhar using debate


Julia Dhar is on a mission to help people disagree productively by finding ways to bring truth to light and new ideas to life. In her TED talk, she shares a model for structured disagreement that is mutually respectful and assumes a genuine desire to persuade and be persuaded.


Finding Common Ground

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 be, and should be.

Debate requires that we engage with the conflicting idea, directly, respectfully, and face to face. The foundation of debate is rebuttal. The idea is that you make a claim and someone provides a response, and you respond to the response. Without rebuttal, it’s not debate; it’s just pontificating.


Shared Reality

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. What they are skillfully doing is inviting us into what psychologists call shared reality. This shared reality is the antidote to alternative facts.

The conflict is still there as the foundation of the debate. Shared reality just gives us a platform to start to talk about it. The trick of the debate is that you end up doing it directly, face to face, which is important. Research suggests that listening to someone’s voice as they make a controversial argument is humanising. It makes it easier to engage with what that person has to say.


Structured Debate

Nothing is stopping us from pressing pause on a parade of keynote speeches or the sequence of very polite panel discussions, and replacing some of that with a structured debate. All of our conferences could have, at their centerpiece, 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.


Separate Ideas from Identity

Once we are inside this shared reality, debate requires that we separate the ideas from the identity of the person discussing them. In formal debate, nothing is a topic unless it is controversial, but the debaters don’t choose their sides. This is why attacking the identity of the person making the argument is irrelevant, because they didn’t choose it. Your only winning strategy is to engage with the best, clearest, least personal version of the idea.

It might sound impossible or naive to imagine that you could ever take that notion. We spend so much time dismissing ideas as democrat or republican or rejecting proposals because they came from headquarters, or from a region that we think is not like ours. However, it is possible.


The Humility of Uncertainty

One way to do this is to submit ideas anonymously. Imagine if our news media did the same thing – a weekly cable news segment with a big policy proposal on the table that doesn’t call it liberal or conservative. Or a series of op-eds for and against a big idea but you don’t know where the writers work. Our public conversations, even our private disagreements, can be transformed by debating ideas, rather than discussing identity. Debate allows us to open ourselves up to the possibility that we might be wrong, the humility of uncertainty.

One of the reasons it is so hard to disagree productively is because we become attached to our ideas. We start to believe that we own them and that by extension, they own us. Eventually, if you debate long enough, you will switch sides, you’ll argue for and against the expansion of the topic at hand. This exercise flips a cognitive switch. The suspicions that you hold about people who espouse beliefs that you don’t have start to evaporate because you can imagine yourself stepping into their shoes. As you’re doing this, you’re embracing the humility of uncertainty, the possibility of being wrong. It’s that exact humility that makes us better decision-makers.


Intellectual Humility

Neuroscientist and psychologist Mark Leary at Duke University and his colleagues have found that people who are able to practice what researchers call intellectual humility are more capable of evaluating a broad range of evidence. They are more objective when they do so and become less defensive when confronted with conflicting evidence. As we’re embracing the humility of uncertainty, we should be asking, “What is it that you have changed your mind about and why?”


The Skills of Debate and Persuasion

In 1969, beloved American children’s television presenter Mister Rogers sat impaneled before the United States congressional subcommittee on communications, chaired by the seemingly very curmudgeonly John Pastore. Mister Rogers was there to make a classic debate case requesting an increase in federal funding for public broadcasting. At the outset, committee disciplinarian Senator Pastore was against the idea. Very patiently and reasonably, Mister Rogers continued to make a case for the benefits of quality children’s broadcasting.  In doing this, he invited the panel into a shared reality.

On the other side of that table, Senator Pastore listened, engaged and opened his mind. Senator Pastore said to Mister Rogers as he agreed to the funding, “You know, I’m supposed to be a pretty tough guy, and this is the first time I’ve had goosebumps in two days.”

We need more people like Mister Rogers with the technical skills of debate and persuasion. On the other side of that table, we need more people like Senator Pastore. The magic of debate is that it empowers you to be both Mister Rogers and Senator Pastore simultaneously.


Transforming the Way We Talk

Once you start thinking about what it would take to change your mind, you start to wonder why you were quite so sure in the first place. 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 start listening, stop dismissing and start persuading, and to stop shutting down and to start opening our minds.


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