Management consultant and debate coach Julia Dhar argues in her TED Talk
that the same formal debate techniques used in high school auditoriums can be applied by all of us to have more structured and mutually-respectful disagreements in our personal and professional lives.
The premise of formal debate is straightforward: there’s some big, controversial idea like whether to raise the voting age, with one group arguing for it and another group arguing against it.
At the heart of the process is rebuttal – one person makes a claim, the other person provides a response challenging that claim, and so on.
Dhar suggests we can use the following three formal debate techniques to have more productive disagreements at home, in public spaces, and where we work:
1. Establish common ground
Research shows that simply presenting information that contradicts someone else’s worldview actually strengthens their original beliefs, instead of changing their perspective.
As Dhar points out, this is why the most effective and persuasive debaters start by finding some common ground on a given topic – 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.“
2. Separate ideas from identity
We spend a lot of time dismissing ideas based on the identities of the people who hold them – their demographic, organizational, or political affiliation.
But in a formal debate, attacking the identity of the person making the opposing argument is irrelevant because the debaters don’t choose their sides: “Your only winning strategy is to engage with the best, clearest, least personal version of the idea.”
When Dhar works with teams in organizations that are trying to solve some complex problem or come up with a big idea, she starts by asking each person to submit ideas anonymously.
3. Get comfortable with uncertainty
Dhar notes that one of the reasons it’s hard to have productive disagreements is that we become attached to our ideas: “We start to believe that we own them, and that by extension they own us.”
But when you repeatedly practice formal debating, you will eventually switch sides – for example, you’ll end up arguing both for and against expanding the welfare state.
This exercise flips a “cognitive switch”: suspicions you previously had about people who have different beliefs fade, and you’re better able to see the world from their perspective.
It’s helpful for all of us to embrace this “humility of uncertainty,” and to ask each other: What have you changed your mind about and why?