How To Debate Ideas Productively In Meetings

How To Debate Ideas Productively In Meetings

A recent article in the British Medical Journal1 drew attention to the importance of protecting and promoting open disagreement among diverse experts to improve the quality of advice given to political leaders in a crisis.  Although we may not be managing a crisis, theirs and other research suggests that adversarial argument helps diverse groups do a better job of evaluating arguments both for and against given propositions.  This results in better problem solving and decision making.

While this sounds great in theory, we have all experienced debates that have been derailed by people who want to ‘win’ the argument, believing that their ideas should carry the most weight or if they shout the loudest they will batter people into submission!

So, how do you ensure a productive debate with your colleagues at work?   Whether it’s setting expectations at the start of a meeting or reminding people regularly during it, the following will help.

1) Remind everyone that you are all on the same team!  Engaging in constructive confrontation and verbal ‘jousting’ is helpful to a productive debate.  However, taking an adversarial ‘win at all costs’ position is not.  Therefore, remind people:

  • We are here together in the spirit of enquiry, as colleagues not adversaries.
  • Our shared goal is to find the best way to do…..xyz.
  • All viewpoints that will help us reach this goal are welcome.
  • There are no ‘winners’ in this discussion.  However, the team wins if we make progress.
  • Everyone is an equal participant.  There is no hierarchy and no special weight will be given to one person’s viewpoint over another’s.  This is an important point as some people think that their ideas should carry more weight because of their status, qualifications etc.

2) Keep the debate going by making it about facts and logic and the topic at hand.  In your meetings ensure everyone follows these rules:

  • This debate is not about who cares most, who is the loudest, who is the most powerful or who is the most articulate.
  • No tricky rhetorical tactics will be allowed.  For example, someone responds to an idea with ‘How do you expect me to do that?  I’m not superwoman/superman!’
  • Ensure people distinguish between facts and interpretations (stories people have about the facts).
  • Identify logical fallacies and ask the speaker to start again without using it.  A logical fallacy is an error in reasoning.  For example: ‘We can either stop flying or destroy the earth’.  However, the two choices are presented as the only options, ignoring a range of choices in between such as developing cleaner technology, using other more environmentally friendly means of transport etc.
  • Check the validity of assertions of fact and analyse the quality of the evidence, not just the evidence.

3) Ensure people don’t make things personal.  In other words:

  • No name calling or personal attacks.
  • Stay away from questions that cast judgment on people, rather than their ideas. Instead of questions like “how could you believe that?” or “why can’t you see?”, pose what questions instead, such as “what makes you feel that way?” or “what has led you to that conclusion?”
  • Give people the benefit of the doubt. Assume that everyone’s intentions are good.
  • Nobody loses face for changing their mind
  • Recognise and reward people for carrying the team forward, rather than being “right.”

4) Be intellectually humble.  This means that everyone should:

  • Not take things personally.
  • Listen to and respect every person and their viewpoint, even if they disagree.
  • Admit when they realise they are wrong and cheerfully concede when others have good points.
  • Be curious. Even bad ideas can be useful – they can help uncover new and better ideas.

No matter whether you lead, facilitate or participate in meetings, you have a responsibility to debate ideas respectfully and productively.  Doing this will ensure that meeting outcomes are achieved and everyone’s time is used effectively.

There is an old adage that states – ‘The key to debating and solving a problem isn’t getting along well. It’s not getting along — well!’

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  1. How diversity and disagreement can help manage the politics of expert advice in a crisis. Alfred Moore and Michael K MacKenzie the BMJ 7th November 2020 p.235

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