In politics, in business, in every organisation, debate provides both the fuel and the compass for forging ahead. It is the process through which ideas are challenged, refined, sparked, tested and found to be either flawed or sound – and as such debate is a cornerstone of social and commercial success. But how can an individual succeed in debate?
The French moralist Joseph Joubert said, “The aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress” and I wholeheartedly agree with him. The great thing is, though, if you go into the debate with that attitude, you are much more likely to shine than you would if you were focused on winning.
I’m writing this on the day of the UK general election 2015, so politics is at the forefront of my mind today but all this applies equally around the table in the boardroom, at the parent teacher association, at the parochial church council meeting or anywhere else.
When I was interviewed by Sky News while the Prime Minister and his opponents were preparing to take part in the Leaders’ Debate, I was asked (as a public-speaking coach) how each leader could succeed in the debate. The points I wanted to emphasise were:
- Practise and rehearse, bring notes with you. Make sure your own message is clear and that your mind is free to engage with what other people are saying.
- Discuss the issues; don’t make personal attacks. Being nasty is petty, it reflects badly on you and it brings down the level of debate.
- Concede, connect and find common ground where possible.
In the event, the debate was a whole lot more civilised and productive than I had feared. This has also been my experience attending local hustings, which I have in two constituencies (though I don’t know to what extent the fact they were held in churches influenced the atmosphere). I read in an Economist article about the electoral system, “The distance between the front benches in Britain’s House of Commons, it is said, is that of two drawn swords”. It would be nice to think that the fragmentation of British politics is ushering in a new era of debate that is less adversarial and more constructive.
In an article entitled Winning The Debate or Collaborating Toward Success?, business-development strategist Eric Fletcher says, “Wherever there is community or team, long-term success — the kind that builds a legacy — almost always turns on leaders that see beyond one debate or issue-of-the-moment”. In business, in politics, in every other sphere, if you want to succeed in debate, look at the big picture.
For you as an individual, if you must think in terms of defeating your opponents, set your sights on winning not the battle but the war. Focusing on progress rather than victory will lead you personally to give an impression of decency and of gravitas, and it will lead you collectively to make better decisions. This can surely only be described as win/win.