Debates vs. Discussions

February 11, 2018

While I wouldn’t say I “avoid” writing about politics on this site, it’s definitely true that I try to focus on other things. This is mostly because there’s already so much good political writing from so many interesting perspectives, and there’s not a ton of value I can add. It’s also because I care a lot about civics and political thinking, and went to school for it, so just spouting off without putting in sufficient time to read and analyze the things I’m reacting to seems unproductive.

Still, for a lot of different reasons (splits in popular culture, fewer mass-experiences, etc.) , our political culture seems increasingly influential at a time where it also seems like an increasingly bad influence. People have been pointing this out for literally years — see Jon Stewart’s famous Crossfire appearance more than a decade ago — but it seems like The Game Show Host President has really pushed things over the edge (or at least pushed these trends into the mainstream), and many of our worst political tendencies are finding their way into our daily interactions.

There are a lot of these tendencies I could cover here, but I’m going to focus on one in particular that has major potential impact on organizations outside of politics and policy — the conflating of debates and discussions.

debates

Debates can be a lot of fun, because they’re a combination of two things Americans love — ideas, and winning. I’m not going to use real debate terminology here (because I don’t know what it is), but for the purposes of what I’m talking about, let’s define a debate thusly :

  • in a debate, each position is represented by an advocate
  • each advocate attempts to convincingly prove that they are absolutely correct, and that their opponent is absolutely incorrect, at least when it comes any conflicts with their own position
  • there is some third party (judges, an audience, voters, whatever) that is going to ultimately pick a winner and a loser (or losers)

When I was a little kid, a lot of adults I looked up to told me that I would enjoy formal debates, probably because I was constantly arguing with them in ways that were only somewhat compelling but extremely entertaining. I even participated in a debate once (just once) in high school and thought it was kind of cool. However, debates actually have extremely limited utility in real life, because many of the key properties of debates I listed above don’t exist in realistic scenarios.

For instance, in real life :

  • the best answer is often represented by no side at all, often because it hasn’t occurred to anyone yet
  • almost every position has flaws, and a lot of bad ideas have interesting elements in them that can be used to solve flaws in better overall positions
  • there is often no third party to validate a position, or the third party is unqualified to do so

There’s a perfectly valid place for pure debates. It’s when you’re down to a few fixed courses of action (often some kind of specific tactic), and a bunch of people have to agree on which one to commit to. Once everyone understands the options and agrees on what they actually are, it can be very constructive to have an advocate for each (it’s even better if they actually believe in the stance), and hash it out for the rest of the group. When my high school punk rock band started taking songwriting (somewhat) seriously, we had lots of useful debates on things. Did this song need a third chorus, or was it too repetitive? Good, honest debates don’t necessarily drive consensus, but at least they get people to a point where they agree on what they don’t agree on, and everyone gets to hear the best story for each option. This is much better than having to do something you don’t like, and don’t even properly understand.

discussions

A much more common form of arguing/advocating in the discussion, which is much less emotionally satisfying for competitive people, because you can’t really “win” no matter how clever or well-prepared you are. Discussions occur (again, I’m making all these definitions up, so bear with me) when a bunch of people have to figure out what the right thing to do is, but don’t have a finite list of options they are trying to choose between. People have opinions and biases for sure, but they are often ideological, or directional, and very few if any of them have gone all the way down the rabbit hole to determine an operational plan with costs, benefits, and impacts on everyone. The group is having a discussion to figure out how to solve a problem, and that problem is emphatically NOT “which of these several options should we take”. If you think it is, you’re preparing for a debate, and you’re going to have trouble contributing positively to a discussion.

In punk band terms, our discussions weren’t about making final decisions like our debates; (often choosing between two unpleasant options) they were about figuring out what our next options could actually be. When those discussions felt like debates, it was usually because one of us thought they knew what someone else was getting at, and didn’t like it. These were… not our most productive discussions.

In politics, there seem to be fewer and fewer visible discussions, and even the few we have are framed as “negotiations”, which in practice appears to be largely a debate between various red lines parties really, really don’t want to cross — but might, in the right scenario. Again, that’s not really a discussion.

too many debates, not enough discussions

As mentioned earlier, debates are an emotionally satisfying form of collaboration for people brought up on winning and demonstrable excellence. Unfortunately, they’re only truly useful in a small number of situations, so most of the debates I’m either forced to witness or — God forbid — take part in are pointless. The advocates are primarily there to win approval of a certain position, not explore options or the validity of their own position, so various tactics that improve the odds of winning while making the overall environment more confusing and less productive tend to creep into the room. Some common ones I roll my eyes at :

  • apples versus oranges — defining the definitions used in the discussion based on the debate you want to have, and then forcing every option into that framework (even if it makes no sense) because you’re ready to argue on that turf
  • not relevant — setting boundaries for the discussion that extend to fit around your position, but not necessarily other positions, so you can dismiss flaws to your position (or positives to another) as irrelevant to the current discussion
  • projection — telling other people what they think, so you can turn an actual person’s position into (at best) a proper debate partner, or (at worst) a straw man you’re excited to beat up with your preferred position
  • axe grinding / redirection — undercutting a useful path an open-ended discussion takes as it becomes apparent your pre-established position is not a viable solution to the newly identified challenge (“… BUT HER EMAILS!!!”)

Again, these unhelpful actions are not necessarily a result of someone having a bad idea or weak position; it’s a result of them insisting on having a certain position when the group simply isn’t ready for one yet. The fact that Ted Cruz loves formal debating (and is, from what I understand, extremely good at it) and the fact that everyone in the Senate from both parties actively resents him and wishes he would go away is probably not a total coincidence; he brings an insistence on debates to things that should be discussions, and it’s entirely possible that someone like Cruz is great with debates (which are rare in actual legislating) and terrible at discussions (which are a key component of legislating).

fight to protect the properties of a good discussion

Professionally, people have often mistaken my refusal to take a debate position on some workplace question as a lack of interest in the subject. This is usually wrong; most of the things I truly don’t care about don’t get brought to my desk, and when one of them is, my lack of interest is usually really obvious. For everything else, what I’m really trying to do is protect the integrity of a real, live discussion designed to fix the problem. If I immediately become an advocate for a particular solution, it’s possible — probable, even — that I will do so before I have sufficient understanding of the issue and its impact on everyone else at work. After all, we have entire teams dedicated to very different challenges than mine (engineering, product, sales, support, finance, etc.). How could that not be true?

When there’s a problem that affects everyone, and I’m tasked with solving it, I’m a strong believer that setting up the frame for a proper discussion with everyone is the most useful thing I can do. Often, in doing so, it’s useful to build a theoretical stance that would make sense in the framework I’m suggesting, and when that’s the case, I’ll do it. But — and this is really, really important — you can’t lose sight of the fact that your stance is secondary to that discussion framework. You absolutely have to be ready to throw your stance in the garbage if your open discussion reveals that your stance is not inherently dumb, but simply the wrong type of stance for the actual problem you’ve uncovered. This is something that I’ve had to work really hard to get better at over the last ten years or so, but it’s led to most of the best professional decisions I’ve helped organizations come to.