By Bill Frayer

How to Have a Productive Debate


Engaging is a serious debate or discussion about a difficult issue can be a good way to expand your understanding of that issue. If you listen, ask appropriate questions, and state your position cogently, it can be a rewarding experience.

Unfortunately, the participants are usually more interested in pontificating about their own ideas than in engaging in thoughtful dialogue. Think about the last time you were engaged in a passionate conversation about some controversial topic. Chances are, while the other person was speaking, you were formulating your response, rather than deeply listening to your “opponent.”

To make a debate productive, you need to approach the process with two assumptions: (1) You must understand that you could be wrong to some degree. (2) You must also believe that the purpose of engaging in this conversation is to get closer to the truth, not to win the argument. Most people think they are absolutely correct and want to win the argument. If you have the intellectual humility to realize that you don’t have all the answers, then you are on track to have a productive discussion.

After setting aside your ego in this way, the most important thing you can do is listen deeply to what the other person is saying. Be ready to courteously ask for clarification of points you do not understand. For example, if the other person claims, “I think the Iraq War was a necessary battle for the United States,” you might reply with a thoughtful question like, “Necessary in what way? What makes a war necessary?” This kind of response will encourage the other person to elaborate on his or her point and give it more clarity. Your goal should be to understand before you respond. Asking relevant, courteous follow-up questions does not mean you agree, but it does help you understand. When you do present your point of view, you will have increased the chance that your position will be listened to in a similar way.

Another goal of this kind of discussion is to look for areas of agreement. If you are discussing a difficult topic like abortion, for example, you might find that you both may agree with certain common ideas. Most people do not hold rigid, extreme issues on controversial issues. Many pro-choice people are not entirely comfortable with the high number of abortions. Many pro-life people do recognize that, under some circumstances, terminating a pregnancy might be necessary. By consciously looking for areas of agreement, you can narrow your differences and focus on the issues which make the topic difficult.

For example, most of the controversy about homosexual rights invariably narrows down to a factual disagreement about whether homosexuality is a choice or an orientation over which we have no control. Simply identifying this fact helps each side understand the other’s concerns. You may not ultimately agree, but you will reduce the anger and genuinely appreciate the other’s viewpoint.

This need to have civil discussions about sensitive issues is not just an academic exercise. Often, political decisions are made on the basis of emotional, irrational characterizations of the opponents’ viewpoints. The public, especially in the US, is terribly polarized into ideological camps, fed by ideological media companies. If we are to solve the very real problems we face, we must learn to engage in civil, courteous dialogue with those with whom we are inclined to disagree. This is true in our own lives and in society at large.

Ojo Del Lago
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