Blame cable news, political polarization, the social fragmentation made possible by tech, or the ills of our education system, but wherever you want to lay the ultimate responsibility, the fact remains--most of what we call debate these days is really just preaching to the choir.
Whether right or left wing, most news programs and articles don't even really try to engage anyone who doesn't already share their views. Instead, they settle for raising cheers and jeers from those already in agreement with their basic premises and world outlook. If you aren't already sympathetic, engaging with them is about as likely to make you switch sides as listening closely to what's coming from the opposing side's stands at a sports match.
Better Debates = Better Business
This sort of nondebate is poisonous in politics, but it's also costly in business. The best, most innovative teams are made up of those with different expertise and life experiences, and getting to the idea that will appeal the most generally involves having those with different perspectives productively butt heads and reach consensus. So how do you break out of our culture of shouting matches and point scoring and actually manage that?
In the course of a long Medium post about the debate surrounding the representation of women in video games, writer Robin Sloan recently unearthed a great suggestion. It's used by The Long Now Foundation, a San Francisco-based organization dedicated to the heroic task of fostering long-term thinking in our jumpy, attention-span-deprived world.
Sloan explains the technique: "There are two debaters, Alice and Bob. Alice takes the podium, makes her argument. Then Bob takes her place, but before he can present his counter-argument, he must summarize Alice's argument to her satisfaction--a demonstration of respect and good faith. Only when Alice agrees that Bob has got it right is he permitted to proceed with his own argument--and then, when he's finished, Alice must summarize it to his satisfaction."
It's not a high-tech solution or hard to implement. In fact, having speakers summarize accurately others' point of view is incredibly simple, but it's also a pretty radical departure from business as usual. "Our democratic culture has, I believe, basically given up on debate as a tool for changing minds or achieving consensus," Sloan writes. "Instead, we use it as a stage for performance, for political point scoring. When we debate--and this is true whether it's a big televised event or a little online roundtable--we direct our arguments not at our opponents but rather at our allies. We rile the base. We face the choir. We preach!"
The Long Now's approach could help you dial back this tendency if you see it cropping up at your organization. Or, if you're looking for more ideas to help halt our descent into unproductive conversation, there are plenty of other experts offering to reteach the nearly lost art of the thoughtful exchange of ideas.
Could a simple change of debating procedure at your business transform your discussions from fruitless grandstanding to actual thought provocation?