How to have healthier debates
A fun fact that you may or may not know about me, is that for about 13 years of my life, I was involved in some sort of competitive debate or speech extracurricular activity. When I was in the sixth grade, I joined my middle school’s afterschool debate club, where we each took turns delivering short speeches, taking any position, on a topic that the teacher pre-selected each week. In high school, I got involved with Mock Trial, Model United Nations, and Model Congress, traveling multiple times a year to competitions and conferences. In college, I joined and eventually became the president of my university’s American Parliamentary Debate team. During my time with that team, and later on with my graduate school Debate Society as well, I competed in, judged, and hosted hundreds of rounds of debate, across many different formats: American Parliamentary, Policy, Lincoln-Douglas, Public Forum, British Parliamentary, and probably more that I can’t remember anymore.
I was never a debate champion like some of my friends were. I was a solidly middle-of-the-road competitor. I sometimes made it to quarter-finals or semi-finals, but most of the time, I never even qualified for the elimination rounds at most tournaments. But that wasn’t the reason I participated. I loved debating because it expanded my brain, working muscles that I didn’t know were there because they weren’t activated by college coursework, and debate clarified the mechanics of powerful, meaningful communication in a way that made logical, trackable sense. It still is the most fun and intellectually challenging activity I’ve ever done.
I credit my debate years for making me a better writer, orator, and critical thinker that I would otherwise be. In this post, I’ll try to break down what constitutes a great debate round, and extend those characteristics to ways that regular, day-to-day debates at work can be made healthier and more productive. I’ll try to outline the reasons why your debates might feel frustrating today, and the names that we give to these types of anti-patterns in the competitive debating world.
There are important differences, obviously, between debating in a competition and debating in the workplace. In the former, you’re trying to land points with the judge, according to the rules of your debate format (and the incentives subsequently spawned - more on this later). In the latter, you’re usually trying to reach some consensus, so that you can proceed with solving a problem, with more confidence. It’s fundamentally about competition in the first; cooperation in the second.
There is a sweet spot in high-level competitive debate, where debaters aren’t trying to land cheap shots on each other, but rather are meeting their opponent in middle of the field in hand-to-hand contest. That type of debate is my favorite type to watch because regardless of the outcome, everyone feels like we learned something new from watching that exchange play out. That’s the kind of conversation that pushes teams forward, that I’ll hopefully give you some tools to try to start building.
“Two ships passing in the night.”
One of the most common mistakes that novice debaters make is to make lots of arguments, as if they could overwhelm their opponent with a large quantity of scattershot rhetoric, rather than engaging deeply with the core tenets of the opposition’s case. Throughout this post, I’ll use two characters, Alexa and Bernardo, as fictional debaters in the examples.
Alexa: Governments should enforce limits on carbon emissions from consumer vehicles, because the existence of government is founded on a moral imperative to protect the common good, in the absence of market incentives. There is a clear moral rights claim, by future generations, to clean air and a healthy planet.
Bernardo: Limiting carbon emissions on consumer vehicles wouldn’t solve the problem of climate change. The biggest emitters are industries and developing countries; it would only create the illusion of progress to focus on consumer vehicles.
Alexa: Bernardo didn’t address my moral rights claim. His argument is irrelevant. My claim is that there is an absolute moral imperative that lies with governments, regardless of outcome.
Bernardo: Alexa didn’t address my efficacy point. Her moral rights claims don’t matter when it comes to real-world policymaking.
In this example, Alexa and Bernardo are arguing on entirely different planes of existence. Alexa is making the moral case for a policy change, and Bernardo is arguing about efficacy. While both may be good arguments, if I were a judge in this round, I would have no way to weigh these two arguments against one another, because they stake out completely different rhetorical territory. As the judge, I’m not supposed to have an opinion on whether I think moral arguments or efficacy arguments are “better”: the debaters have to lay that foundation and convince me why their relative prioritization is more correct. I would score both debaters quite low, and probably just choose the person who made their case with more evidence, but — this is a bad debate round. We call this mistake: “Two ships passing in the night.”
In debate lingo, another way I would put this is: there is no clash in this round. Clash is the direct engagement of arguments, when two debaters boldly turn towards each other and negotiate through an active conflict and attempt to resolve it somewhere along a shared spectrum of outcomes, rather than carve their own independent paths in the conversation.
This happens all the time in the workplace. Ever start a conversation about the long-term maintainability of an architecture decision, only to end up bickering about AWS bills? These types of conversations are frustrating and energy-consuming: they leave both parties feeling like their perspectives were not acknowledged — because, they weren’t. No clash happened.
The way we avoid this in debate is: We try to explicitly respond to the arguments made by the other person, before offering our own counterpoints. In practice, I’d recommend using Active Listening techniques, and repeating what the other person had said to make sure you understand it, and responding thoughtfully to the nature of their argument, as well as the details that they presented.
Yes, and a cookie
In my format of debate, we had more room for world-building than other formats. When a team presented a policy proposal, the opponents could either debate it head-on, or offer a counter-case. The counter-case generally had to be a radically different, mutually exclusive proposed state of change to the world.
Bernardo: We propose that everyone should receive a Universal Basic Income (UBI) of $2000 each month.
Alexa: We’re going to counter-case that, and propose that Americans receive UBI, and the government should invest $100 billion in vocational skills training.
Bernardo: That’s… I mean, we didn’t say we’re opposed to job training?
Alexa is actually committing a rule violation here, called “Yes, and a cookie.” Her counter-case wasn’t mutually exclusive at all with Bernardo’s — in fact, they fundamentally agree on the same premise, that government should be expanded as a social safety net, but they’re wrestling over some end-stage implementation details — in this case, a $100 billion cookie. This debate round, if allowed to proceed, would be extremely, extremely bad to watch.
But this also happens all the time in real life. Many times, people fundamentally agree on the rationale for doing something, but they’re caught up in arguing the last-mile details, most of which is not relevant for the level of abstraction at which the conversation would be interesting! Are you trying to build a shared understanding of the world, or are you trying to craft policy details (implementation details)? Those are two completely separate conversations, their priority levels are different, their required context level is different, their audiences are different, and their likelihoods to evolve are different; don’t conflate them by trying to have two different conversations at the same time. It’s only going to lead to frustration.
And sometimes, people really want a conversation to conclude with the feeling that their idea was 100% the correct one. Even if it shares 97% of the ideas that others contributed. It really pays to identify which parts of your positions are already in consensus, so you can proceed to hammering out only the delta.
Recognize that some debates are structurally unfair
I want to end on this point, because I think it’s the most important, and difficult to grok, even for seasoned debaters. Sometimes, debates are inherently unbalanced, because the opponents do not begin with the same amount of social and situational power. This can be because one debater is more experienced, more confident, more socioeconomically advantaged, had greater access to expensive debate coaches, and so on. There is nothing new about Marxist and feminist critiques of power. I did not invent or synthesize this information. But we often lose sight of it, in the heat of a spirited debate.
Competitive debate, like many competitive pursuits, is ever-evolving. Each year, the in-vogue “style” of debate changes a little bit. This evolution is a direct consequence of how judges dole out victories and points — in other words, incentive structures are created by a combination of officially-written rules and thousands of tiny decisions by judges. Unsurprisingly, teams with access to resources will optimize brutally towards these incentives.
There’s a really fantastic episode of Radiolab about a phenomenon that happened in New York City’s high school policy debate league. To summarize: The policy debate circuit had evolved such a heavy emphasis on producing expertly-curated documents (literally, printed journal articles and newspaper clippings, from inside a cardboard box of manila folders and file separators) in the middle of debate rounds to support arguments, and the procurement of these “document briefs” was such a time-intensive task, that the most elite schools were hiring full-time coaches to help teams with this. Full-time coaches that public school teams could obviously not afford. Instead of attempting to catch up, a group of Black student debaters instead launched an all-out “meta-debate” offensive on the fairness of the adjucation methods. I won’t spoil the ending — go listen to the episode 😉
Sometimes, the rules of engagement are such that some people cannot participate on even footing. It takes a lot of self-awareness to figure out when structural inequities are kicking in, but it’s an enormous (maybe impossibly so) emotional burden for the person who is marginalized to make everyone else aware of these structural problems. In particularly pathological cultures, even pointing this out can be a career-jeopardizing move for marginalized people.
So, my final point here is about fairness and kindness. Before you launch into a head-to-head debate, think about structural and contextual power differences that are working in the background to add some tailwind to the impact of your arguments, and equally add air resistance those of your “opponent”. Have you been at the company for longer than the person you’re about to debate with? Are you a straight white male, about to publicly clash with an intern, who happens to be a queer woman of color? Are you someone who is known to be well-liked by management, about to go hand-to-hand with someone who doesn’t have as many allies in high places?
If you have the upper hand, it’s your job to manage the power dynamics of the conversation now. You have to listen, you have to rein yourself in, and you have to focus on what’s good for the team long-term, not just about winning for yourself and other similar local optimizations. There is no judge who can penalize you, and I acknowledge that behavior change is very hard when there are few external feedback loops. But it’s so important. Just because the damage to the fabric of your team is much harder to calculate than the output of a debate round, doesn’t make it any less real.
tl;dr: Engage deeply with what other people are saying, and run towards clash (in the debate sense), not away. Debate only the things worthy of debate. Recognize when a debate is unfair.