Turning Debates into Discussions

Turning Debates into DiscussionsHow many times have you seen a debate, where you loved and praised the person you supported and were annoyed by and scorned the person that you were not supporting? This is because debates are by definition constructed to produce this result. The point of a debate is for each side to use any means to persuade the other side until one prevails with a “superior context”, rather than to find understanding or even common ground in one another’s viewpoints.

Debates are about winning an argument, rather than creating mutual agreement, even if the agreement is at least: to agree to disagree. If someone listens to understand the other side, it’s in order to find ways to argue against it.

In the past years I’ve seen many debates and as much as I get some great information watching them, they regularly leave me empty, disconnected and agitated. I could imagine a similar thing happening to the debaters themselves, even if they managed to win an argument and convince some listeners and viewers to change their mind about something or learning something new. At the core, the human connection is lost. I similarly stay disheartened and unnerved when I see interviews, especially if the interviewer is biased and is purposely interrupting and leading the topic in a specific direction. A typical debate has this format: 10 min – each side gives opening statement, 2 rounds of 5 min rebuttals (attempt to contradict), 20-30 min of audience Q&A and 5 min closing statements.

The whole debate in this way ends up being an uninterrupted monologue of each debater, without any chance to make sure they are staying on track of the topic and addressing issues applicably, correctly and with understanding and without knowing if the other side understands and is even satisfied with the responses. The only time when there can almost be an engaging discussion is during the Q&A period, but that’s not even between the “debaters” but rather with audience members, and usually the audience is not allowed to even follow-up on the debater’s response. Debates need to be designed as discussions. A place where the panelists can actually engage in a dialogue that is moderated by a very skilled and competent moderator. Having a good and experienced moderator is of essence.

The speakers would still have introductions to express sentiments and thoughts on the subject, and raise specific and concrete points or questions. After these introductions, they would start the dialogue together and discuss the topics point by point with the support of the moderator. Everyone will do their best to stay on the clearly distinguished topic. If anyone digresses, the moderator would hold the crucial responsibility to bring things back on track. Each speaker would need to non-evasively address the currently discussed point and do one’s best to use language and explanations that is understandable, concrete and well framed. Every point or question chosen from each side would be given necessary amount of time, even if overall less points were covered. It is more important to find common ground on at least one point than to brush over ten points to no one’s satisfaction. After the discussion, they can have closing remarks, followed by Q&A, which could also be designed similarly as the discussion itself, except with more time restrictions, again under moderator’s guidance.

In an interview setting, usually the interviewee needs to be one’s own moderator and make sure to maintain the interview as a discussion. This article is for all the moderators, debaters and also listeners of debates out there, with an aim to create potential improvements in shaping debates and helping them become closer to discussions. As my examples below I will use few debates mainly on topics of religious and non-religious beliefs. I will focus on commenting on the flow of the debates rather than the content and will highlight specific moments of missed opportunities to have a successful discussion and connection, usually due to moderator’s or speaker’s negligence or incompetence. You can watch any other debate and apply the same scrutinizing eye for your own practice.

For a successful discussion, each speaker would need to understand and agree in advance to thoroughly follow these two mutual agreements:

HeartRespect emotional integrity Always make sure emotions are taken care of before reason plays a role. Learn to understand the concept of empathy and emotional integrity. During the discussion if one is triggered or notices someone is triggered, make sure to attend to the person with empathy, understand and acknowledge the other person’s sentiments. Ignoring to acknowledge when someone expresses one’s emotional state is what i call “emotional fallacy”. To avoid things from getting heated everyone on the panel and especially the moderator need to consistently look for common values that connect the speakers, make sure to find them, and speak to them. Allow everyone to state their views and even repeat them in your own words in order to illuminate the topic.

brainRespect rational integrity Improper use of rational reasoning can lead to misconception and misunderstanding and needs to be monitored in a debate. One way to detect this is to look for logical fallacies in explanations. Speakers need to understand the concept of logical fallacy (rational integrity) and recognize and agree on its importance in the discussion. To understand logical fallacies is to have intellectual morality in communication. Avoiding using fallacies helps people trust each other’s claims. During the discussion, the moderator needs to make sure to recognize logical fallacies and not allow anyone to make logical conclusions based on them. If a person is claiming that his/her point is not in the realm of logic and rationality, then it is important to treat the topic metaphorically or poetically. It is disingenuous to treat a non-rational claim rationally; if someone knows that the other person is obviously talking metaphorically, trying to make logical sense out of it just won’t work. And vice-versa, it is incorrect to call something a logical fallacy that is a proper rational explanation.


“Does God have a Future” Debate

with Sam Harris, Michael Shermer, Deepak Chopra, Jean Houston and moderator Dan Harris – watch full debate In this debate, Deepak Chopra gets clearly upset when Sam Harris and Michael Shermer consistently call his work “woo-woo”(watch 10 sec. of the clip below). Doing this creates disconnection for a successful dialogue. Chopra ends up also calling their work “woo-woo” and “so-called science” (watch 10 sec. of the next clip below). Respect is clearly lost and it’s not being recognized nor addressed. It is a powerful example of how disengaged things can get.

The moderator Harris needs to put focus on what’s going on for Chopra emotionally and needs to recognize that he needs empathy, respect, acknowledgment and probably even an apology before the conversation can go on. The moderator needs to point out to Harris and Shermer that they need to explain why they believe Chopra’s work is flawed instead of resorting to unsound, disrespectful and judgmental labels like “woo-woo” and “spooky”. Of course, debate settings usually never go there. In this debate, most of the time, the moderator seems to be preoccupied making sure he gives everyone a chance to speak and not that the speakers connect and are on track.

In the clip below, Sam Harris attempts to establish one specific topic to agree on. Chopra dismisses talking about that because he thinks it is more important to talk about compassion, love, inspiration, creativity. And then right after that, Shermer dismisses this by saying that those values should be in place anyways (watch 2 min. of the clip below). The moderator has to make sure that both topic are properly addressed and recognized by everyone and then everyone can move on onto the next one.

As for rational integrity, Sam Harris addresses a very specific point and asks Chopra a concrete question (watch 80 sec. of the clip below). His point not only doesn’t get answered to Sam’s confirmed satisfaction, but the moderator Harris derails the whole topic by inviting Jean Houston to talk (to make sure to include everyone) and never comes back to bring closure to this question since she starts to talk about a different point. Even though this debate has active dialogues between the speakers (unlike other debates), it is unmanaged the whole time, point after point.

Sam Harris even points out at one point that there’s no common agreement around what kind of a conversation they are all having (watch 90 sec. of the clip below). After alluding, yet again that Chopra’s work is “mythical”, Chopra interrupts him to ask for proof or qualification to call his work “woo-woo”. When Sam Harris attempts to answer (still resorting to usage of “woo-woo”), Chopra gives examples that he believes gives truth to his claim, Harris disagrees and  even says that “saying it louder won’t make it true”. At least in this part of the talk, they started touching upon and getting to the main source of their disagreement.

In this part of the debate, the moderator Harris attempts to paraphrase Houston’s point (not to her apparent satisfaction) (watch 90 sec. of the clip below). The questions paired metaphor and skepticism, two concepts that are incompatible with one another. Shermer in his attempt to explain skepticism, said that many claims are “just bunk”, rather than pointing out that metaphors aren’t even applicable to skeptical scrutiny. This way, he maintained the confusion around these two concepts and he perpetuated alienation with Chopra and Houston, this time by not having rational integrity. He does make the good point that within scientific scrutiny, one needs to have concrete words and definitions.

Sam Harris holds his rational integrity very well when he points out that in his claim he is consciously not making a logical fallacy (ad hominem) – he has rational integrity. Unfortunately, just as he does this to establishing respect, he goes on to call Chopra’s work “spooky”. And even if he called science “spooky”, using terminology like this will just further invoke sense of disrespect in Chopra after his work has been called “woo woo”. Not recognizing this on Sam Harris’s behalf shows that he doesn’t have emotional integrity (watch 3 min. of the clip below). Chopra then goes on to make the exact logical fallacy that Sam Harris was wanting to avoid labeling him with by saying that his work is valid because he has certain diplomas. And he also expresses that he takes resentment on what Sam Harris and Shermer are saying to him, he is obviously very insulted. Furthermore, yet again, instead of working on recognizing where the misunderstanding is happening and attempting to connect the speakers, the moderator Dan Harris interrupts the conversation to switch to Houston. And further into the debates, as all the speakers are getting more frustrated, the moderator keeps making it worse by consistently switching away from topics at hand.

Here is an example where Sam Harris becomes very focused and makes a very important observation about subjectivity and objectivity. (watch 4min. of the clip below). Just as he and Chopra are coming to a point of recognizing where they disagree, Dan Harris basically destroys the whole conversation by saying that “they are starting to lose him”. Again, the moderator is there to help the  skeares find common language and this was a great opportunity pull that off and it was totally missed.

In the clip below (30sec) Deepak actually says that he agrees with all of what Sam Harris has said and he even apologizes for being so combative and that he would prefer not having a debate. Same follows it with a sentence starting with “but”. Yet again, they need to get on the same page in regards to how they listen to each other.

In the clip below (watch 2min.) Shermer call’s Chopra’s words fuzzy – Chopra calls him on this and says that he can’t just call his way of expressing himself “woo-woo”. Shermer doesn’t address that, instead he gives the Moon example to which Chopra says that the Moon is a big quantum soup. The conversation is lost yet again without fully addressing that the languages are different.

This is probably the most important part of the conversation, where Chopra recognizes that most of what he is saying is mostly a hypothesis and yet again Sam Harris ties him to that statement, because Chopra usually tends to assert his words as if they are the truth. Instead of making sure this is completely resolved and clarified and that Chopra addresses Sam Harris’s question, the moderator, yet again just redirects the conversation

Richard Dawkins’s interview of Wendy Wright

At the very beginning of the interview, Dawkins asks Wright a question and she answers by appealing to values of love, respect and dignity (watch 60 sec. of the clip below) Dawkins completely ignores these values by going straight to making factual claims. This seems to be what he wants to talk about, rather than listening and responding to what Wright had to say. From there, Dawkins and Wright literally go back and forth for more than an hour without getting anywhere. There doesn’t seem to be a mutually established agreement to have respect toward either rational integrity (Wright not listening to and respecting factual claims, which are important to Dawkins), nor emotional integrity (Dawkins not attending to Wright’s values of love and respect that she keeps going back to). Without these agreements in place, the interview is in a form of a debate rather than a dialogue and the conversation is clearly filled with frustration and disconnection for both of them.

They do manage to have about 30 seconds worth of connecting after a full hour of talking (watch  30 sec. of the clip below) where they agree that there needs to be respect for human beings, for health and collectively work on build a better society. If the interview had started off by Dawkins recognizing these values (which Wright mentioned right at the beginning), they could have built mutual respect and eventually potential interests to actually hear each other out.

This is probably why Dawkins is so often being labeled as rude and arrogant. He is not arrogant, he is just often inconsiderate of people’s emotions and non-rational beliefs. He digresses when people talk about their faith, emotions, values and needs and takes it to logical and empirical analysis. He is making an emotional fallacy which is causing people to think that he is careless. And it seems that Dawkins is ok with that, although I believe that he would actually gain so much more and so would people around him if he simply added this component into his interactions. A good example of Dawkins’s inconsideration is when he tells an audience member that he is hallucinating, even after the person comes back and tells him about the tremendous emotional investment he had put into his belief. It is obvious that if the man wasn’t happy with Dawkin’s answer the first time he wouldn’t be happy with it the second time, and Dawkins is obviously not invested in emotionally supporting the man through his struggle, paraphrases his original answer and in turn probably alienates the man further.

Christopher Hitchens vs. Douglas Wilson Debate

Here is a debate where there’s a lot of emotional integrity and respect between the speakers. Both Hitchens and Wilson sit right next to each other, they express their respects toward each other and act accordingly, they even pose some agreements. They stay on topic and let each other speak. They keep the conversation light and playful so that they don’t get unnecessarily triggered, probably because they were on a tour doing this debate so they had the time to establish their dynamic too and they simply came to respect each other. Respect for rational integrity is still missing as it is usually hard to establish in this specific type of debate. For example, for quite some time Wilson seem to remain unaccountable for his stand on belief in miracles. Even in the Q&A, people keep coming back to this point. His answers need more detailed scrutiny, as they seem (based on their reactions) not to fully satisfy either Hitchens and many of the audience members. When an audience member brings it up again, Wilson’s answer is still not satisfactory to Hitchens and he does hold Wilson accountable in a very outspoken manner and calls upon the audience to notice it too (watch 60 sec. of the clip below). On the other hand, just like metaphors are not applicable to facts, it is worth considering the option that the concept of a miracle might be in the same category and trying to prove it factually or rationally is just unfitting.

Someone actually asks about what their “common ground” is, as it looks like to her that they have no common ground at all and that there is no possibility of even having a dialogue. And she is right, a successful discussion needs to include mutual agreements to find common values to build upon. Hitchens claims that they don’t have common ground because they think differently, but common values and needs can be found regardless of whether people hold different belief systems, because they are universal to all of us (watch 3 min. of the clip below).

In this clip, Hitchens asked Wilson a very specific question and stays on it for a long time until they have pretty much exhausted it. It is a successful discussion if a topic can be explored thoroughly. Hitchens is also very good in making sure to moderate the flow of the interaction to preserve rational integrity.

The Big Debate with moderator Jonathan Dimbleby

Here is a program called the Big Debate in which the moderator Dimbleby does an excellent job moderating a large panel of speakers while including all the audience members as well. Dimbleby holds people accountable for what they say, he makes sure that people stay on topic and that he understands the answers by paraphrasing them. He is consistent with this approach throughout the whole debate. Appealing to people’s values and emotions is always more difficult as it’s not a standard approach in debates and here the time was quite restricted for every speaker.

Piers Morgan’s interview of Penn Jillette

This is a typical interview where the interviewer keeps jumping from topic to topic and doesn’t acknowledge or seem to be really interested in the intervee’s answers. They do establish some common values right off the top. When Piers Morgan expresses that Jillette “angers him” and that people get annoyed and agitated by Jillette’s “deliberate stance”, Penn needs to acknowledge that people are agitated and that Morgan is angry before he starts to explain that his book doesn’t intend to do that. Again, emotion before reason. The trouble here is that even if Jillette did that, he is in a difficult position, because Morgan seems to be leading the interview anyways. For example, when Jillette attempts to address the “beyond comprehension” point, after Morgan introduces it, Morgan goes back to the “people are upset” point. And keeps swapping points without attempting to understand where Jillette is coming from at all. This interview doesn’t seem to have respect neither for emotional nor rational integrity.

“The Catholic Church is a force for good” Debate

with Archbishop John Onaiyekan, Ann Widdecombe, Stephen Fry, Christopher Hitchens and moderator Zeinab Badawi After the moderator asked Onaiyekan a very specific question, he starts answering it to the obvious displeasure of the other speakers and the audience and then the moderator moves on to the next question by pretty much interrupting the answer and without making sure everyone was satisfied with the response.

Here’s a debate between Russell Brand and Peter Hitchens, see if you can find out whether they are having a discussion or a debate and whether either side is successful in hearing the other successfully. Are they even trying to hear each other?

Thanks for reading, please share and comment, and if you send me any questions, I can respond to them in this post


p.s. A quick reminder that even with people who usually agree on core issues and beliefs, things can go astray if they eventually happen to disagree on something and are used to “win-or-lose” debating (Sam Harris on free will and Daniel Dennett on Joe Rogan’s show):



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