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How to Have a Productive Debate

What research tells us about how to make progress through honest argument.

A good debate requires cognitive friction, a willingness to respect other viewpoints and revise your own, and ground rules to ensure the debate stays on track.

Remember: Everyone is on the same team. Avoid making things personal and stay intellectually honest and humble by keeping the debate about facts, logic, and the topic at hand.

Try debatestorming: Determine the question, cast different thinkers, prepare hypotheses, share and build on those hypothesis, and debate to disprove those hypotheses.

Shane Snow is the bestselling author of Dream Teams and Smartcuts. Currently, Shane is the CEO of the film tech company SHOWRUNNER, which helps filmmaking teams work smarter together. (Disclosure: SHOWRUNNER is an A.Team Customer.)

There are three kinds of debates. Most people aren’t very good at the one that works.

The second-worst kind of debate is the kind we engage in most often. It’s the debate where the goal is to prove that you're right. E.g.:

  • A couple argue about which one of them has spent more effort taking care of the baby.
  • A political candidate tries to persuade the audience that his way of thinking is the right way.
  • A VP of Product and a VP of Marketing argue about whose plan is the better one for the next quarter.

This only makes sense if

  1. You’re actually right.
  2. Your audience or opponent is open to changing their mind.
  3. There isn’t a better argument or idea out there than the one you’re making.

This debate often results in the most powerful or persuasive person getting their way, rather than the best solution winning out. And it doesn’t do any good if you’re trying to find novel solutions to problems.

An even worse kind of debate is the kind where the goal is to destroy someone.

This is very rarely productive. E.g.:

  • A couple argue that the other partner is an unfit parent.
  • A political candidate tries to persuade the audience that his opponent sucks, and maybe we should even put her in jail.
  • A VP of Product and a VP of Marketing argue to the CEO that the other one needs to be fired because their plan is dumb.

Often the above two kinds of debate happen because, as mathematician and behavior researcher Spencer Greenberg points out, the debate is “really about your group identity, not about the content of the disagreement per se.”

In other words, “what the argument is really about is whether my group is better than your group.” That’s a debate that’s not likely to yield progress.

The best kind of debate, on the other hand, is the kind where the goal is to make progress together. The process of this debate often leads the group to explore ideas that no one member could have come up with on their own.

The “winner” is everyone. E.g.:

  • A couple puzzle together over the BEST way to take care of the baby, regardless of who does what and when.
  • Two political candidates combine their viewpoints to debate the merits of new solutions to problems, knowing that regardless of who wins the election, the other one will become the winner’s advisor. (Imagine the world we’d have!)
  • A VP of Product and a VP of Marketing debate different aspects of a company strategy in order to find a better plan than either of them would come up with on their own.

The problem is that debating the productive way is harder than the other two ways.

This is one part human nature, one part societal bad habit. Arguing that we’re right—and taking out our opponents—is in our DNA; it’s how we picked leaders and survived back in caveman times.

A group of people can only become smarter than its smartest member by mashing different viewpoints together.

But even today, we reward people for persuading us that they’re smart because they have the “right” answers—from kindergarten to the C-suite.

We don’t teach kids to argue in ways that get people to think and rethink. We train them—especially by example—to argue that they’re correct.

An evolved thinker, though, will recognize that a group of people can only become smarter than its smartest member by mashing different viewpoints together.

This is why research has overwhelmingly shown that a good debate is more productive than a group brainstorming session.

So how do we have that kind of debate? It takes three things:

3 Keys to A Productive Debate

A good debate requires the following:

  1. cognitive friction, or the smashing together of different viewpoints (you won’t have a great debate if everyone agrees too much);
  2. intellectual humility, or a willingness to respect other viewpoints and revise your own; and
  3. ground rules to ensure the debate stays on track.

Though it’s everybody in a debate’s job to keep these three things in mind, it helps to have a leader or host whose job is to gently encourage and enforce them.

A productive debate can involve any number of participants, so long as they participate fully and thereby don’t leave potential ideas on the table. There’s no universal “right” number of people for a debate—though two is the easiest to manage, especially if there’s a chance that people might hold back in front of a larger group.

Below, I’ve put together 5 main ground rules for hosting a debate that works—and 5 tips each for encouraging cognitive friction and intellectual humility—based on years of researching the principles of breakthrough collaboration for my book Dream Teams:

5 Ground Rules For Productive Debates

1. Start with a well-defined objective and a spirit of inquiry.

2. Everyone is on the same team.

  • We’re comrades, not adversaries.
  • There is no “winner.” The team wins if we make progress.
  • Everyone is an equal participant; no hierarchy or special treatment.
  • Assume that everyone’s intentions are good; we are all coming from a good place here.

3. No making things personal.

  • No name calling or personal attacks.
  • No “how could you believe that?” or “why can’t you see?” questions. Pose “what” questions instead like “what makes you feel that way?” or “what has led you to that conclusion?”
  • Give people the benefit of the doubt.
  • Nobody loses face for changing their mind.
  • Reward people for pushing the group forward over being “right.”
  • No taking things personally yourself.

4. Keep the debate about facts, logic, and the topic at hand.

  • The debate is not about who cares more, who’s loudest, who’s most powerful, or who's most articulate.
  • If things get emotional or personal, gently identify it and reset.
  • Distinguish between facts and interpretations (stories).
  • Identify logical fallacies and step back.
  • Check the validity of assertions of fact, and analyze the quality of evidence, not just the evidence.
  • If the debate veers into other topics, identify it and reset.

5. Be intellectually honest and humble.

  • No tricky rhetorical tactics.
  • Listen to and respect every viewpoint, even if you disagree.
  • Admit when you realize you’re wrong, and concede when others have good points.

5 Ways to Encourage Cognitive Friction in Debates

  1. Inject as many differing perspectives as you can, especially any unusual or extreme perspectives you can find. Any perspective can be helpful (except for redundant ones!).
  2. Isolate specific points of disagreement.
  3. Push back on people's logic and assertions; push for evidence, data, and justifications.
  4. When you find people agreeing, invite dissent. (And look out for phrases like, “We all agree that...” or “Do we all agree?”)
  5. Don’t let a bad or unfinished argument lie. (If you’re going to run out of time, schedule more time!)

5 Tips For Encouraging Intellectual Humility in Debates

  1. If possible: Have everyone read this article on intellectual humility and take the 1-hour open mindedness course at so they can practice understanding and dealing with different viewpoints, based on the latest science.
  2. If possible: get everyone in the debate to know each other’s stories personally, so you can build some empathy with one another.
  3. Begin by sharing your own admission of your own intellectual fallibility—that you could be wrong, have been wrong, etc.
  4. Investigate and clarify rather than attack. When people make points, be curious about them, seek to clarify claims and definitions of things, and try to understand before you try to counter or refute.
  5. Set an example by conceding points to others and admitting that you’ve changed your mind, when appropriate.

Debating For Idea Generation

Research study after research study shows that a traditional brainstorming exercise is usually inferior to just having people brainstorm on their own. Turns out that the social dynamics of a group usually leads members to hold back (consciously or inadvertently) when they’re asked to come up with ideas together.

A good facilitator can help counteract this effect (if they focus on including people who are more quiet, and managing people who are more vocal), and there are clever interventions that can make a brainstorming session more interesting (like starting off with some sample ideas that are really extreme). But study after study shows that the best way to come up with good ideas as a group is not to just blurt out ideas together—it’s to have a debate. The goal should not just be to come up with ideas; it should be to build off of ideas and then try to poke holes in them, so you can discover even better ideas.

I suggest a debate process that roughly follows the Scientific Method, with a little bit of improv comedy “Yes And.” Added together, I call this method, “Debatestorming.” Cheesy, I know. But you get what it is!

Shane Snow is the bestselling author of Dream Teams, from which this story was adapted. Currently, Shane is the CEO of the film tech company SHOWRUNNER, which helps filmmaking teams work smarter together.

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