If you already come out of debates laughing and high-fiving everyone, then you can stop reading. I’ll just be wasting your time.
My story is only of value to folks that, like me, see clear winners and losers during debates, have a tendency to be aggressive, and often come out feeling exasperated.
Spoiler alert: I now preach a different way of debating, and nobody has to get hurt. It’s an approach that brings people together to solve a problem, not compete against one another. It’s rooted in collaboration.
Here’s why I like debating:
I believe that ideas can’t improve if they go unchallenged. How do I know a solution or decision is the best if I’m the only one assessing it? I don’t. Therefore, I debate.
I debate product features to build, how to present or pitch to clients, and definitely debate who to hire onto our team. It continues at home. I debate with my wife on things like where to send our daughter for extracurriculars, how to invest our money, and what to cook.
I believe debating makes my life better. Research seems to agree. Management experts preach the idea that healthy conflict over decisions and ideas at work makes teams smarter, ideas more refined, and company mergers more successful. Research also finds that couples who argue are more likely to stay together.
Yet, I tend to upset people…
I love my parents, but I’ll be first to admit I’m not very nice to them. We debate a lot, and it often results in yelling.
My folks and I are first-generation immigrants, but while I’ve adapted to life in America, my parents have not. We’ve become very different people. We have very different values and outlooks on life. A clear recipe for conflict.
I have years of resentment toward my parents that fuel our debates about anything and nothing. When I was ten years old, I took our camera without them knowing, then took about a dozen pictures of our car. I tried to imitate photos I’d seen in Car and Driver — my favorite magazine as a kid. They were furious after printing the roll (yes, it was back when cameras still had film). Instead of encouraging me to be a car photographer, they yelled at me for wasting film. They wanted to hear nothing of my love of cars or photography. I just wasted money.
The result was that up until a few years back, I had used debates with others as a means of letting out the resentment I felt toward my parents. I debated with anger, although some were nice enough to call it “passion.”
That’s not great. I feel guilty thinking that many people didn’t feel safe or comfortable sharing their thoughts during debates with me, and were offended. Especially when I was a figure of authority in some way.
Not many people are comfortable contradicting their bosses. That’s particularly true when the workplace culture is hierarchical, or when superiors are bullies.
To be able to debate without fear requires (in my opinion) a very respectful and trusting environment. Even model workplaces such as Amazon that encourage debates have a tendency to inadvertently create hostile environments. What started as a mechanism to enable meritocracy can backfire and make people uncomfortable speaking up, fear criticism, and ultimately quit.
Now, I debate ideas, not people.
Meeting my wife was the luckiest thing to ever have happened to me. I honestly don’t know how she puts up with some of my behavior, but even more incredibly, she has made me a better person — and now dad.
My wife also enjoys debating, but not my way. She uses data and evidence to make cases and works collaboratively to evolve ideas and solutions proposed. She shows empathy toward others and lets everyone speak their mind.
She has taught me how to use debates to solve problems, not win arguments. To say I’ve learned a great deal from her is an understatement.
To pick a school for our kid, we debated a healthy mix of facts and opinions. We first listed criteria that were important to us (e.g. cost, standardized testing scores, proximity to our house, sport and extracurricular programs, cultural diversity), then debated what was more or less important. We then explored options together. We obviously had disagreements, but ultimately committed to an idea that was more creative, and I’d like to think better, for our kid. It was also an idea we developed together through debate, not one we had in mind at the beginning.
It’s been a long journey, and I’d love the opportunity to share six ways I’m keeping myself in check during debates.
1. Don’t start by calling out differences.
The first thing I take note of when listening to others’ ideas is how different they are. If we’re debating what projects to prioritize, I’d take note of ideas different from mine, then start building a case around why they’re not as good as mine.
Our brains are apparently wired this way: Research suggests that our sensory system is more tuned to spot differences than similarities. Potentially to spot danger in the wild.
Unfortunately, calling out differences has a tendency to create competing positions among parties, and make the problem harder to solve. Everyone thinks their needs to be more important, and their ideas better. The debate turns into a fight as result.
Instead, I now try to start debates by outlining what we can all agree on. A common starting point. That helps knock out a bunch of items we no longer have to negotiate or debate on. Second, it also helps to create trust between parties and builds the bonds necessary to collaborate on the problem.
I have to thank Stuart Diamond, author of Getting More (affiliate link to his book), for helping me realize all this. He came to give a workshop at our startup a few years back. Diamond is a big proponent of starting negotiations from basic points everyone can agree on: e.g. Let’s get lunch. This helps all parties see each other as equals, as humans, and start building the trust needed to address the hard questions.
Over time, I’ve learned to start debates by first getting food together, by agreeing we all want to make more money or to save lives or the fact that nobody’s happy with the current conflict.
2. Don’t debate people you hate.
Debates are awkward enough. Debating someone I don’t get along with is likely a disaster waiting to happen. There’s little chance of actually solving problems or improving ideas. It’ll just end up in a shouting match. Like it always happens with my parents.
If I really have to work and debate a foe, I try to find a mediator that’s trusted and gets along with both myself and them. Unfortunately, I don’t have siblings when it comes to dealing with my parents, but for anyone else, I won’t go in alone.
There are many cases of mediation being a successful tool to unite parties that would never in a million years speak with each other. In one case, New York City significantly reduced the number of conflicts at its public schools by having students lead mediation when they see fights arise. If teenagers can avoid fights by having peers mediate, we can too.
3. Try not letting biases blind you.
I live in a bubble. I was born in 1980's Shanghai before China was wealthy, grew up in French-speaking Montreal, went to engineering school at Waterloo, started my career at a fast-growth startup in Philadelphia, and married an amazing woman from Vancouver (where I currently live). My personal experiences introduced a series of biases and irrational thoughts unique to me.
As result, I am hyperaware of not letting people’s names be a factor when recruiting, prefer candidates with engineering degrees, and a good dose of entrepreneurial spirit the American way. I also value data much more than gut feelings when making decisions.
But not everyone is like me. Each one of us has a unique series of biases from our unique backgrounds. During a debate, our biases affect how we judge ideas, and how we see and talk to each other, often without realizing it.
If we just let go of a team member with a PhD because they couldn’t deliver work fast enough, we’d likely avoid hiring another PhD person due to the availability heuristic. Even if the new candidate is nothing like the last one.
I’ve become a bit more aware of my human biases after reading the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. The pair won a Nobel prize for exposing human irrationality. From their book Thinking Fast and Slow (affiliate link), I’ve developed a few strategies to control biases during debates:
- Start debates by first reviewing past work on the topic so it’s available in everyone’s memory, and so we all start from a common set of facts and assumptions. For example, if we work for an auto manufacturer and we’re pitching to shift production toward electric cars, we can first review the latest sales numbers of existing electric cars to align everyone on current market demand and growth. Instead of relying on people’s selective memory of Elon Musk tweets hyping demand.
- Anchor expectations for the solutions proposed by highlighting past initiatives that achieved results we’re confident to hit. Or perhaps highlight failed initiatives if we want to set expectations low. Even Elon Musk, who usually sets unreasonably high goals for his teams, has begun to reign in expectations on the quality of Tesla vehicles during initial production.
- Word solutions in a way that prompts risk-taking or risk-averse behavior, depending on what you think is right. Framing outcomes as costs rather than losses typically garners more acceptance than if we frame outcomes as losses. For example, when Tversky and Kahneman asked 132 students whether they’d take on the two gambles proposed below (they share the same risk and reward), 42 accepted option A but rejected option B:
Option A: Would you participate in a lottery that costs $5 to participate, offering a 10% chance to win $100 and 90% chance to win nothing?
Option B: Would you participate in a lottery that offers a 10% chance to win $95, and a 90% chance to lose $5?
4. Don’t schedule debates before lunch or late in the day.
“HALT!” called my business partner, so I could ask myself if I was Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired before doing or saying something bad. That happens at least once a month.
Fact is, I’m often hungry and angry. My fast metabolism and narcissism, if left unchecked, will more than make me an asshole. Especially during debates.
Disagreements during debates easily make us feel threatened, and in turn, react defensively. Forget about collaborating on solving the problem at that point. It takes a conscious effort to be aware of our emotions in the moment to control them. To keep debating collaboratively and respect each other.
Negative impacts of hunger and exhaustion don’t stop at debates. Evidence shows that teams that actually eat during lunchtime report a higher level of productivity and happiness, while MBA candidates that are interviewed late in the day are consistently ranked lower than peers that were interviewed earlier.
It’s, therefore, a really bad idea to debate before lunchtime or late in the day, when we are predisposed to be angry from hunger and fatigue.
5. Don’t say “always” or “never.”
“You never take out rotten food from the fridge,” I said to my wife. Like that has ever gotten me anywhere. She would immediately point to some instance of the past where she did so, and break the “never” argument. She’d then destroy me by calling out something I never or always do. And I lose because my memory is plain bad.
Saying things like “…doing X will always fail” is really difficult to debate. It’s almost a personal opinion, not a data-driven argument. It is again biased by the availability heuristic (when one event we recall in the moment overrides the objective data).
I, therefore, avoid using single examples we can readily recollect as “evidence.” Instead, I try to find objective data on the problem or solution, so we can say: “…doing X has historically resulted in an 85% chance of failure. How will things be different this time?”
The Australian Institute of Family Counselling actually has a great list of communication tips for having healthy debates. I guess it is how we say things.
6. Don’t fight all battles.
I personally care about which city I live in, but not so much about what type of house. I care about how much fuel my car sips, the comfort of the seats, reliability, but not aesthetics or brand.
This means I’m happy debating decisions on issues that matter to me, and I’m happy letting others decide on issues I care less about.
That’s a chance to divide decision power across issues debate less. Save my energy. Disagree and commit to decisions we care most about. Folks at the London School of Economics devised a unique way to do this that I love:
- Giving each person an equal number of points
- Allowing each person to assign points across mini-decisions, with more points translating into more importance to that person.
- Whoever has the most points assigned to a mini-decision gets the final say on that issue.
Practice, Practice, Practice
It took more than a year to earn the trust of my peers.
I know I could lose it all if I don’t show that I have their best intentions at heart when debating. To show that winning is not the goal, but working together to solve a problem is. The 6 items above form my mental checklist on this journey.
I view success as people high-fiving each other at the end of a debate because we all worked together to push an idea to higher ground. I’m happy to report it’s now a much more regular occurrence in my life. Good luck and have fun debating!