Debate Done Right: Boost Your Formal Debate Game

Most people cringe at the word debate, envisioning the personal, divisive attacks of presidential candidates posturing on a public stage. But formal debate can be highly effective for busy leaders faced with complex decisions and ideas, so perhaps it's time to consider a good argument.

Nearly 1,000 attendees clutch their plastic clappers and file enthusiastically into the ballroom for one of the American Physical Therapy Association’s signature events: its annual Oxford debate. The topic: Should residency be a requirement for licensing physical therapists? The speakers: two teams of three professionals presenting or giving counterpoints for seven to 10 minutes each, one affable moderator and chair of the planning committee. The costumes: Wait, there are costumes? And music?

So much for stuffiness. Eight years ago APTA sought a way to creatively air perspectives around hot professional topics at its annual meeting and decided to try an Oxford debate—a format of timed argumentation with strict rules and a framework designed to keep the focus on an issue, not those discussing it.

“It’s been a big success for us,” says Mary Lynn Billitteri, APTA conference programming manager. “It’s a very entertaining but important part of the conference each year. … It’s not that people are going to walk out of the room and say, ‘I’m convinced I’m going to vote for X.’ It’s more for opening minds. The debate sparks a lot of great conversation,” and consensus often emerges.

The debate does not produce an official APTA policy stand—Billitteri estimates that a quarter of presenters advocate a position they personally oppose. But the event, which is part serious presentation, part dinner theater, can make arguing the pro-con elements of a strategic discussion or the pitching of conflicting perspectives a bit more palatable.

In an era of information overload, rapid decision making, and growing diversity and inclusiveness, formal argumentation with its civility and respectful frameworks can be an efficient, effective leadership tool in the workplace and boardroom, too.

Debate Rediscovered

Debate suffers from a bad rep. Popular depictions often illustrate word wars in which ideas and questionable facts are slung back and forth by people who don’t hesitate to speak over one another. On the academic front, debate competitors speak a complex, jargony language of rules and acronyms.

The art of argumentation requires superior listening skills, strengthens critical thinking and communication skills, and builds good writing, interpersonal, and presentation skills. On a less personal level, formal argumentation can raise a group’s self-awareness, ensure that all ideas and opinions are considered fairly and thoroughly, and reveal consensus points, as well as the crux of disagreement.

Debate also builds grit, resilience, and deep empathy, since debaters and their audience must understand opposing views alongside their own, according to Jullian Plaza, professor of forensics and debate coach at Colorado College. Debate done well “provides the deeper reasons why you’d want to go with certain plans or ideas,” he says.

“I would hope association boards have considered debate [as a tool] because it creates constructed conflict,” which is “inevitable” in a diverse society striving to be more inclusive, says Plaza. “Not everyone grew up in DC with exposure to different groups, so they have various levels of perspective and comfort, and yet everyone in a workplace is expected to understand people they have no idea about or understanding of. The only way to deal with this well is to depersonalize the conversations. … Effective relationships don’t magically occur.”

But there is a reason why debate is primarily offered in Toastmasters’ “advanced” chapters and with the help of a members-only guide: It takes genuine trust, collaboration, and commitment.

“If you don’t trust that everyone is there on equal footing and debating on the weight of the criteria and outcome goal you’ve all agreed to beforehand, it’s not real debate,” says Plaza, who will train attendees at the 2016 ASAE Great Ideas Conference, March 13–15, about the merits and tactics of debate for vetting ideas.

Toward that end, a lot of “soft work” must be done before an argument because “in a business, you’re a team, not a winner or loser,” he says. “You live or die by how well you work together. What people don’t understand is that … debate is a tool for mutual growth, to solve problems together, in large part because you’ve all already agreed on objective criteria against which to match and judge each argument.”

For debates to be effective, the issues need to be clearly defined and narrowed.

Better Decision Making

The components of effective debate also have applications for high-performing association boards, according to researchers who conducted a three-year study of how strategic conflict helps boards make better decisions. The study recommends that boards devote 40 percent of their time to “seeking decisions and action items,” some of which “may be contentious” or crisis-oriented.

Mark Engle, FASAE, CAE, principal of Association Management Center, and co-researcher Paul Salipante, Ph.D., of Case Western Reserve University, found that to manage conflict-heavy issues, the best boards often hire third-party consultants to add perspective and information while simultaneously delegating debate and consensus identification to task forces before full-board consideration and further debate.

Engle and Salipante also discovered a difference between association boards and their corporate counterparts in terms of debate: In associations, getting personal can produce better results. “Debating the objective merits of the issue during [association] board meetings leads to lower-quality decision making. But allowing personal elements into deliberations at the board level drives consensus among peers and improves decision quality when members have a personal interest and perceive a fair process in making a decision,” Engle wrote in the January 2012 issue of Associations Now.

This is less surprising when you consider the personal investment and attachment many association board members have to the work those organizations do, noted one association executive.

Clearing the Air

Debate can also be used as an information tool, a way to ensure that board members know all the facts and arguments prior to a separate robust discussion.

In addition, different formats can engage groups of various sizes. For example, many business schools routinely use classroom or campuswide debates not to have winners or losers but to boost learning engagement, recall, and critical thinking in tomorrow’s leaders.

“For debates to be effective, the issues need to be clearly defined and narrowed,” says consultant and frequent interim CEO Douglas Kleine, CAE, who placed third at Ohio’s high school debate championships. “Take one idea or strategy at a time.”

Kleine used a parliamentary debate format to energize critical conversations at the Community Associations Institute’s annual meetings years ago, choosing—like APTA—serious topics but bedecking speakers in wigs and allowing hecklers.

He believes a formal back-and-forth at board meetings “can help air something that’s grumbling around in the dirt. … Debate can bring the issue forward and air it out. Maybe the differences are intractable, but maybe they’re not.”

Is your board capable of using debate strategically? Maybe that’s your next argument.


Kristin Clarke, CAE

By Kristin Clarke, CAE

Kristin Clarke, CAE, is books editor for Associations Now and president of Clarke Association Content. MORE

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