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Rules for Constructive Debates

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Conflict Resolution Institute

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By Emily Krizmanich, CRI Staff, MA '21.

Debate is a part of life and democracy here in the United States. The first amendment gives everyone the right to free speech which aids in open discussions surrounding political, environmental, and social topics. With the approaching 2020 presidential election, it is becoming increasingly important to not just have debates, but to have safe and constructive ones. Workplace and home debates can create tension and feelings of being unsafe. Randall Peterson of the Financial Times suggests rules people should follow for constructive debate.

First, the rules of constructive debate can be broken down into three main ideas. According to Peterson, constructive debate must first provide psychological safety. Avoid name calling and bullying. These can not only cause someone to feel unsafe, but also diminish ideas. Peterson states "everyone should be able to contribute without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career."

The next rule in facilitating constructive debate is majority rules and minority rights. Basically, the majority rules but not when it overshadows or hurts the minority. It is not good for debates to be set on wins and losses. Peterson says, "majority rule voting fails when the will of the majority is to silence the minority, to 'win' and ensure that the 'other side' loses."

The third rule to debate constructively is not to get addicted to moral outrage. When we feel something is unfair or unjust, it is easy to lash out in anger. However, this is a dangerous phenomenon, especially in the times of social media. According to Peterson, "'flaming' others on social media feels good, especially when we are protected from their anger by being on the other side of a computer. But it also makes it less likely we will hear their point of view, or that they will really hear ours."

Debates play a critical role in our society, so much so that we see debate in presidential processes. As such, we value free speech as one of our many rights as U.S. citizens and protect this idea in the Constitution. Even with this being said, debates should not harm anyone. With the above rules applied to any and all debates, then constructive discussions can happen. Whether you debate with family, friends, coworkers, or politicians, everyone has the right to be heard in a safe space. With the 2020 election looming and political debates seeping into everyday life, take a minute before engaging to build constructive debate environments.