How to debate to learn better

Yep, you read it right. I did mean “debate to learn better” rather than “learn to debate better”. Debates, especially the ones that create synergy, are a good way to learn. Let me explain the what, the why and the how.

Growing up, I have devoured stories of Sherlock Holmes. Though most rave the series for Sherlock’s super-human observation and reasoning skills, I have always loved it more for the Holmes-Watson synergy. Watson thinks of himself as just a whetstone for Sherlock— some one who fuelled the genius’s grey cells. I don’t think he gives himself the due credit. Watson, his questions and debates (intentional or not) created that synergy between them. It pushed Sherlock to think better. Which in turn led to learning better and knowing better.

I love to learn from people. I learn from observing them to debating with them (and anything in between). And when done right, debates can be the most fun way to learn. Trust me!

However, more often than not, they can quickly turn into disputes — where egos precede learning. The net value of that debate is static because the ideas remain the same. On the contrary, debates which create synergy generate new ideas or questions. Sum becomes greater than the parts.

Here’s what I do to debate the right way:

Set the right intentions

Develop an intent to learn and not to win. This intention allows the mind to be open. Only after accepting the possibility of being wrong, one can learn new ideas and perspectives. It is important to communicate the intention at the start and be on the same page with the other.

Focus on asking the right questions over finding quick answers

“An answer can only be as good as the question asked”, they say. Right questions lead to better thinking and eventually to great answers (it may very well not happen during the debate itself).

Think of the other person as just another brain (sans their title)

In corporates, it is difficult to debate with seniors. In such situations, it helps to think of people as simply brains and forgetting the baggage of titles. It also comes in handy while in discussions with the juniors — it removes the superiority bias and their thoughts are given the due consideration.

Find the right people and the right opportunities

Not everyone will be willing to have these debates. Or may be they do but not at that time or on that topic or for that long. Respect that. Read them through their responses and emotions. Apologise as needed. In these discussions learning precedes ego and relationships precede learning.

Be vulnerable with questions not just answers

Vulnerability is not just about sharing intimate answers. It is daring to ask the most intimate questions which would lead to new insights.

For now, go find your Watsons and be a Watson for someone.

Go debate and learn.

Most important, have fun while doing so! (after all, isn’t it all that matters?)

Indebted to the numerous people who push me to think hard and learn better!

Searches for wisdom and wit. Researches human behavior. User Researcher @VMware

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