In today’s trying political climate, it may seem impossible to have an open dialogue instead of a nasty debate. Here’s how to engage those you don’t agree with — without screaming at them.
There’s an old adage that dictates that you shouldn’t discuss politics, sex, or religion in good company, but those taboo topics are now a part of the constant, public debate. Cable news (an industry that I am a ten-year veteran of), continually leverages one extreme point of view against another to achieve ratings, clicks, and ad revenue. Spend time on social media, regardless of whether you prefer Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, or even LinkedIn, and you can’t escape the constant tear-down melee. It’s like the WWE Smackdown of political warfare, only it’s everywhere, and it’s endless.
Peter Coleman is a social psychologist, the director of the Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution (MD-ICCCR) at Teachers College, Columbia University, and Executive Director of Columbia University’s Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity. He says that the idea of “debate” is ingrained into American DNA.
“Americans are socialized to move automatically into debate,” Coleman says, “but debate is a particular type of communication, and it triggers particular processes which are usually not conducive to learning and understanding the other side. Debate is about winning a game, not about learning and discussing.”
Aaron Huertas is a political consultant who penned an essay on Medium in 2018 about the difference between good and bad-faith debate. He is currently working with the non-partisan group, We Can Vote, working to get the vote out. He also recently started his own podcast called Close Read, which digs deep into Washington’s political machinery. He says that a good-faith debate — a respectful exchange of ideas — should educate both sides, not pit them against one another.
“In a good-faith debate, each person should be able to steel man the other person’s position,” Huertas says. A “steel man” argument is the opposite of a “straw man” argument. In the first, you seek out the strongest and most logical argument of whomever you’re debating and argue against that position; in the latter, you reduce your opponent’s argument to a position that’s illogical and easy to refute. A straw man argument is one of the most common logical fallacies — errors in reasoning that invalidate your position.
“They should arrive at that through inquiry with one another and look for an understanding of why your world views are different rather than force world views on each other,” Huerta adds. “Good-faith debate can lead both parties to a place where they can effectively disagree, and it comes from a place of compassion. “
What is a good-faith debate?
A good-faith debate is one in which both parties agree to come to the table with an honest and open perspective that comes more from a place of inquiry, and less from a place of entrenchment. It is a dialogue, more than a debate.
In academic circles, there are distinct, clear, and moderated rules of the road for real debate. If you competed in debate in school, you know that at every debate event, rules and guidelines are clearly laid out, personal attacks — formerly called ad hominem attacks — are not permitted, each side has a set amount of time to speak, and a moderator plays referee between the two parties. Debate itself is a very structured process designed to argue one side against another, and not necessarily come to a resolution, but choose a winner and loser based on how well each side argued their case.
Debate is about winning a game, not about learning and discussing
Today, real debate rarely takes place publicly outside of university campuses (the widely broadcast presidential debates don’t qualify as traditional academic debate) and courtrooms. You won’t see formal debates happening on media platforms, though you can find some on YouTube, such as the 2019 debate between the Slovenian intellectual Slajov Žižek and the controversial Canadian intellectual Jordan Peterson, which drew an audience of 3,000 to the Sony Centre in Toronto and was billed as the “debate of the century.” Though real debate may not hit network or cable news, it is the foundation of our legal system, where lawyers and judges debate and decide the application of specific laws to different situations.
Lawyers, intellectuals, and many people you’ll find on Facebook comment threads aren’t engaging in good-faith debate or dialogue, which are about more about discovery and learning, rather than winning or losing.
“Debate is a closed cognitive process,” Coleman says. “Whereas dialogue is a process of opening up and discovering and learning. If I am sitting in real dialogue with other people, not only will I learn about them and their stories, their history and why these issues are important, but I will also learn a lot more about the issues I am discussing, I will learn more about my own feelings about those issues, too, and my opinion may change as a result.”
Therefore, a good-faith debate begins when you identify what your goals and intentions are in engaging the other side. If your goals are to “win” a battle, then you’re engaging in debate. If you intend to learn something about the other side, yourself, and potentially come to a new and more comprehensive understanding of the other person’s viewpoint, you’re engaging in dialogue or good-faith debate.
“Debate is a specific kind of dynamic, which is fine under specific conditions but is not conducive to healthy relationships or learning much,” Coleman says. “When we debate, we are loaded with ammunition to win and are looking to put holes in the other person’s argument.”
It turns out that dialogue or good-faith debate has much more impact on conflict resolution than a debate does. A 2012 study by Emile Bruneau at MIT showed that by developing skills of “perspective-giving” and “perspective-taking” in a structured dialogue between groups that historically have deeply entrenched conflicts, (the Israelis vs. the Palestinians and Arizona citizens vs. immigrants), each group’s attitude towards the other changed in a positive way. Dialogue and good-faith arguments can have a more significant impact on changing perspectives than debate and argument can.
How to have a good-faith debate with people you disagree with
“Dialogue is not something that we are familiar with,” Coleman says. “It’s like what you see in an AA meeting or Quaker meeting. It is a sharing of stories of why things are important to them, etc. There isn’t crosstalk or debate. In a dialogue, there is usually little interrogation, you tell your story about what is important to you, and you talk as long as you need to, and you move to the next person, and they tell their story and talk about why things are important to them.”
Yet, as Coleman also points out, there are almost no places where real good-faith debate is practiced, either. Based on research from the Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution (MD-ICCCR) that Coleman runs, he and his team put together a short two-page primer on how to engage in good-faith debate or dialogue with anyone — even those you adamantly disagree with.
The first step is to identify your intent when beginning a discussion. It’s important to understand where you are mentally, physically, and emotionally before jumping into a charged conversation. These factors can impact the way you listen and interact with the other person. The other person should also do the same, and both parties should clearly state their intents before beginning. Using the pattern that Bruneau studied, it pays to state your goal, then ask the other person to repeat that goal as they heard it back to you. This is a common mirroring tool used in conflict resolution.
Next, set the ground rules. These are rules that both parties must adhere to when engaging in good-faith discussion. Helpful boundaries include things like no interrupting, no personal attacks, and only making statements using “I” rather than “you.” These tools can help you engage with what Coleman’s team identifies as “a base of positivity.”
What helps is establishing a base of positivity: having or building relationships with others across the divide that have a sense of friendliness, trust, tolerance, rapport and, ideally, humor.
“Logical argumentation is often particularly unhelpful in these conversations. What helps is establishing a base of positivity: Having or building relationships with others across the divide that have a sense of friendliness, trust, tolerance, rapport and, ideally, humor. But establishing these relations takes time,” according to the primer.
Know that in these situations, we see what we seek. That means that we are always primed and ready to slide back into debate and “prove the other wrong,” for the sake of feeling superior or less threatened or anxious. The primer suggests that we need to watch out for our automatic behaviors. “Research tells us that over 90% of our daily behaviors are automatic — things we do every day without thinking, like driving a car or reacting to our kids, neighbors, coworkers, and family. Many of our automatic behaviors contribute to widening our divisions. So pay attention and try something new. When was the last time you listened respectfully to the POV of a member of the other party just to learn what they might have to offer? Not to sell or persuade or criticize or demean, but just to try to understand or discover something new?”
Finally, when engaging in good-faith debate, it’s essential to hold onto hope. If you don’t believe that the world or your opponent can change, then you’ve already fallen into the black and white debate pattern. As proven, there is little to no chance of changing someone’s mind using debate, particularly in the politically divided world we live in. That’s largely why engaging in a good-faith debate online is all but impossible.
There are, of course, some caveats to these rules of engagement in order to have a good-faith debate. Not everyone is always mentally in a place to have a dialogue because it is often hard work that requires both parties to be willing to listen and exchange ideas. In today’s volatile political environment, that can be difficult to find.
Second, engaging in good-faith debate about big, heated topics requires face-to-face interaction. This isn’t something you can practice in the comments on your Facebook post. As Coleman points out, social media is built on the idea of one-upping each other and competition. “These platforms are getting weaponized because the more provocative and ridiculous something is, the more social currency it has online. Debate isn’t a bad thing. It can be a useful thing to have to promote a particular policy, but it can become pathological if it is the only form of communication we have,” Coleman says.
Finally,if anyone is engaging in dehumanizing, bigoted, racist, or outright hateful behavior or speech, it’s probably time to walk away or take more proactive measures to stop the behavior. When someone exhibits this kind of behavior, dialogue has ended, and the person or group you are interacting with has stopped engaging. Knowing your own boundaries and setting and honoring them is critical to staying within the bounds of good-faith debate.
How good-faith debate can help end division
While social media, news, and the media have all been weaponized, thanks to the current political environment, Coleman says that he still has hope that good-faith debate can have a lasting and positive impact on the future of our society.
“This is a very bad time,” Coleman says. “I think that the tools that Trump and the Republicans use, like challenging the veracity of all news and science, is not a new tool. The Nazis did it. It’s something that the autocrats and fascists have used. The internet has made it much more acute and pervasive. I do think this evolves as a dialectic, however. Something comes forward, and there is a reaction and backlash to that, and the pendulum swings. We tend to go back and forth like that. Sometimes that’s healthy, and sometimes we go way too far. We are due for a correction. Trump and the Republicans have posed a moral test. The paradoxical effect is that it’s exposed the problems of our time that will mobilize the next generation. Good-faith debate and real dialogue are among the many tools we can use to address and impact those problems going forward.”