Formal Debate: Dial Down the Fear Factor

A debate tournament judge (and association exec) offers tips on how to ensure that formal debates don't get tense.

Robert Moore, CAE, chief operating officer at the American Dental Hygienists’ Association, understands concerns that formal debate may seem too divisive for certain boards. However, as a debate tournament judge and collegiate national champion in informative speaking, Moore knows ways to make argumentation feel safer while still enabling robust debate.

1. Set clear expectations. These include ground rules that reflect attributes important to the association’s culture, such as respecting diverse viewpoints.

2. Empower the board chair. He or she should keep time, call on questioners, and point to the rules if someone goes out of bounds.

3. Consider inviting an outside professional to debate an alternative position or serve as provocateur. This allows an association leader or team to argue with a perceived expert, likely diminishing potential “interpersonal awkwardness,” Moore says.

4. Assign some speakers the view opposite their own. Academic research has found that when students are assigned to argue against their own opinion, more than half change their mind to that new position. Few people switch sides if assigned a position they already held.

5. Ensure good facilitation. Extreme politeness in associations can hinder open conversation, so even when members vigorously debate in online forums and virtual board groups, they often ratchet down commentary dramatically when face to face. “That’s where good facilitation techniques can help force that board conversation in ways that don’t re-create an adversarial relationship,” says Moore.


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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