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How do arguments shape our connections to other people? What’s the importance of debate in society?

Debating is an essential part of communication that enhances critical thinking, presentational, and decision-making skills. But the benefits of debate go beyond these skills—debates are unavoidable and expose people to different perspectives in life.

If you want to know more about the importance of debate, keep reading.

1. Debates Are Everywhere

The art of debate is valuable because persuasion shows up in many aspects of life, explains Heinrichs. If you’ve ever spoken with a salesperson, discussed a project with colleagues, listened to a political debate, or tried to reason with your child, you’ve dabbled in debate.

In Thank You for Arguing, Jay Heinrichs gives a few reasons that illustrate the importance of debate. You can:

  • Quickly discern what arguments are really about.
  • Skillfully sway your audience to agree with you.
  • Spot others’ attempts to persuade you and deflect them. 

Heinrichs contends that as schools increasingly reintroduce rhetoric into their curricula, more people will have the skills to debate meaningfully, spot weak arguments, and make decisions that benefit a wider range of people. He believes increasing rhetorical education could transform politics: Instead of depending on tribalism to succeed, candidates would have to demonstrate intelligence, disinterest, relevant experience, and a focus on the future.

2. Shape History and Society

The public debates of the mid-19th century illustrate how persuasive arguments shape history and society. Debate influenced both the speakers and listeners—they shared a way of thinking and understanding derived from speaking.

According to Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, attending debates on the issues of the day was an important part of civic and social life. County and state fairs offered lineups of speakers in three-hour slots with equal time for opponents. “Stump” speaking, in which speakers held forth while standing on a tree stump, was also popular in the West. 

Speakers used the style of the written word with long, complex sentences, as well as rhetorical devices such as sarcasm, irony, and metaphors, with confidence their audiences would be able to keep up. They could also rely on their listeners’ familiarity with history and current events.

Audiences had remarkable attention spans. They did get rowdy at times with shouting and applause—debates were, in part, social events—but audiences always took them seriously.

3. Create a Broader View of the World

Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book Skin in the Game suggests that ethical debates are important because they open opponents up to new ideas and viewpoints. Even if you come away from the debate strongly believing your side, you’ll at least gain the perspective of someone else’s beliefs. You’ll be exposed to different walks of life, which will help you communicate and collaborate with others in the future.

The primary rule is to advocate for your opponent’s position as strongly as if it were your own. You shouldn’t start a counterargument until you’ve done this. Don’t obscure any facts about the issue, even if they make your position weaker. Doing so shows respect for the other side and turns debate into a collaborative search for ideas that are true and useful. Counterintuitively, it also makes your argument appear stronger since it shows that you have honestly considered the other side.

Taking this to an even further extent, Taleb advises to not only argue against what your opponent said, but against what they meant—the strongest possible argument that aligns with your opponent’s perspective. This is the opposite of a straw man argument, which seeks to present the opposing argument as weakly as possible. This is an ethical imperative—lying by misrepresentation is immoral.

Taleb equates misrepresentation of your opponent’s point of view to theft—you are stealing their credibility and profiting at the expense of both your opponent and your audience.

4. Enforce Better Decision-Making

Debate is an essential step in getting good results, says Kim Scott in Radical Candor. When ideas can be discussed and improved, it leads to better decision-making and easier persuasion of the people who are going to execute or be affected by the decision. Some bosses think it’s better to make decisions on behalf of their team—it’s quicker and avoids the friction that often comes with debate—but not allowing team members to debate and talk through decisions creates distrust and feelings of being “left out,” which will make it harder to persuade people to make future decisions. 

As the boss, you don’t need to be in every debate. However, you do need to foster a healthy debate culture among your team. Healthy debate culture doesn’t imply debates where there’s no real friction or big ideas to wrestle with. It means that debate is structured in such a way that it makes sense, is respectful, and doesn’t take too much emotional energy out of your team. 

How to Create Healthy Debate Culture

Now that you know the importance of debate, how can you build a healthy debate culture? Radical Candor has six methods that will help you encourage friendly debate, whether at school, work, or between friends:

Method #1: Make sure your ego isn’t getting in the way of good ideas. Often, conversations around finding the best answer get derailed by people’s egos and the need to be right or “win.” If you sense that people are starting to focus on winning instead of finding an answer, your job is to remind everyone of the goal and redirect the conversation in a productive direction. There are several ways to save an ego-driven conversation. 

First, set up clear rules before debates, such as no interruptions, or no giving criticism without adding an idea. Then, be quick to stop anyone who claims an idea is “theirs” instead of involving the whole team, or using the opinions of absent people to bolster their opinion—such as saying, “We don’t think that’s the right direction for this project.” Finally, have team members switch their position on an issue halfway through the debate—knowing that they’ll have to argue against themselves makes people put aside their egos and listen more.

Method #2: Establish the expectation of disagreement. Good debate doesn’t happen when everyone around the table agrees—make it clear that you expect someone to consider the issue from a different perspective. If simply asking your team to disagree won’t work, you can use a prop to represent the expectation of disagreement. When there isn’t enough debate happening, hand over the prop (and the duty to disagree) to a team member. 

Method #3: Know when to take a break. Your debate may reach a point where everyone is too tired—physically, mentally, or emotionally—to productively contribute. It’s unlikely that pushing your team past this point will result in a good outcome. Team members might start bickering instead of debating, or a decision will be made just to end the meeting. 

It’s your job to know your team members well enough to see when they are approaching this point, make the call to stop the debate and decide when to pick it back up. 

Method #4: Know your audience. Recognize that you might have team members who don’t like debate—they might be anxious about speaking up, or find the practice too aggressive or direct. If you know your team members well enough, you’ll be able to see when they’re not comfortable with the debate atmosphere, and you can jump in to help them.

Ease debate discomfort by making the goals and expectations of the debate clear from the beginning, which diminishes anxiety about how things will go or how it will end, and use your ground rules, such as no criticism without contribution, to show that it’s a safe space for speaking up. 

Method #5: Set a deadline for your decision. Everyone needs to have the same expectations for when a decision will be reached—otherwise, there will be tension between those who want to think for a bit before making a decision and those who want to decide at the end of the meeting. Mark a decision deadline for each of your debate topics, so everyone is aware from the beginning when decisions are expected to happen. 

Method #6: Don’t make a decision just to end the debate. When a debate’s been dragging on for a long time, it’s tempting to make a decision just so that it will end—as the leader, you’re the one who will be expected or pressured to pull the trigger on this decision. Remember that your job is to support your team members by taking breaks, setting new rules, or redirecting conversation so they can see their debates through to the end. Don’t take agency away from them by making a quick decision.

Wrapping Up

For non-confrontational people, debates might seem scary to jump into. But they can be a fun activity to do in school and can equip you with the necessary skills you need in the real world. Whether you win your argument or not, you’ll come away with valuable knowledge and abilities you can’t get anywhere else.

Did you enjoy our take on the importance of debate? Let us know in the comments below!

The Importance of Debate & 6 Ways to Have Friendly Discourse

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Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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