At work, debate is one tool we use to collaborate in decision-making. Most debates are informal — rarely is there a clear statement of the debatable premise, and the flow of contributions is relatively free. We tend not to allocate equal time to each participant. We allow ourselves to use rhetorical fallacies, assertions without proof, deception, made-up "facts," intimidation, and threats. Sometimes there is shouting. Sometimes we exclude certain people from the discussion for superficial reasons that hide the truth: we disagree with them and we wish to muffle their voices. The results are predictable. Many of our decisions are defective.
There is another way to go.
Imagine how these debates would go if all participants accepted the possibility that their own views might not be complete or entirely correct. Imagine how these debates would go if all participants adopted this stance:
Given what I now know and understand, I've made a judgment. But I could be wrong about that.
A common objection to this approach is that it might be seen as a sign of weakness that others would exploit to gain acceptance for their views. Certainly, "unilateral disarmament" in the heat of the moment does carry such a risk. But at a time when there's little at stake, a group that works together over a period of time, making many decisions, can adopt this approach thenceforward. If they do, they might find some surprising benefits.
These benefits become available, in part, because the conventional oppositional approach to debate tends to bias what its participants contribute. For example, in an oppositional debate between you and me, if I'm aware or become aware of a weakness in my own position, I might not be inclined to disclose it. And unless you know enough detail about my position to recognize the weakness, you won't raise the issue either. The debate might come to a close without ever addressing the issue. Alternatively, if I'm aware or become aware of a strength in your position, I might not be inclined to mention it. And unless you also recognize it and use it in the debate, the debate can come to a close without ever weighing the significance of the issue. In a more collaborative approach to the debate, points like these are more likely to surface.
The collaborative approach Acknowledging that one
can be mistaken can
be truly liberatingcan be truly liberating. Gone is the burden of preparing defenses of one's own views against anticipated attacks. Taking its place is intellectual curiosity and the urge to discover alternative views. Gone is the burden of seeking objections to the views we believe others hold. Taking its place is intense curiosity about the views they actually do hold — and why.
Debates are more effective and produce more reliable results when they're founded on two fundamental notions.
- We do the best we can with what we have
- The first notion is the idea that at the outset of the debate, or at any point in the course of the debate, the views of all participants are the best they can be with the knowledge and insight those participants possess at the time. When we can believe this about everyone's views, respect for those views comes more easily.
- Learning is no cause for shame
- When we experience shame upon getting caught in the act of learning something, we're more likely to avoid getting caught again, or worse, we're more likely to avoid learning. That avoidance makes for difficulty in accepting whatever of value others might have to offer, which reduces debate effectiveness by limiting the value of exchanging views.
For a group trying to reach a joint decision, incorporating these two elements into its microculture yields an important advantage. Instead of participants preparing to defend their own views and attack the views of others, they find themselves seeking joint clarification of all views. And from that mix there usually emerges a new framework — a new collection of ideas and insights — that no participant possessed in toto before the exchange began.
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