Americans have a love-hate relationship with debating. Case in point: the seemingly never-ending series of Republican party candidate debates. Viewers have been alternatively enthralled and enraged, eager to tune in and bored beyond belief. But the modern approach to debating (which bears little resemblance to the classical format of carefully constructed arguments) can also be seen on point-counterpoint commentator shows, all over the Web, in the press releases and position papers of countless interest groups and on editorial pages. We take debate for granted, without questioning how well it serves our own thinking or society's needs.
We could use such questioning. While conflict is built into our system of government (the Constitution enshrines political conflict and protects differences of expression), so is the need for consensus. We seem, of late, to be having far more of the former than the latter.
When we debate, we engage in what psychologists call defensive communication. Our goal is to advocate, convince and win. We offer answers and solutions. We discourage dissent and ignore or demean reasoned criticism. You can tell if you are debating. If someone else is speaking and you are at the same time mentally formulating your reply, you're in debate mode. Studies of the brain show that we cannot listen and prepare to talk at the same time. They also show that during such communication, we easily lose emotional control the longer we debate, since maintaining our equanimity amidst heated discussion takes energy. As energy flags ("ego depletion"), our emotions overtake our rational attempts to control ourselves. This explains why the longer they argue, the more spouses end up saying things they often later regret.
In short, debate generates heat but often not much light. It is designed for that, and it has its place. It is not structured to generate broad-based agreement. For that, we need dialogue, or what psychologists call supportive communication. Its goal is to inquire, understand, and come to consensus. It offers questions and seeks collaborative problem solving. It encourages dissent and protects the dissenter to encourage productive conversation. Since the emotional tone is dialed down during dialogue, it is less prone to ego depletion and its ill-effects.
Supportive communication is also hard work. Inquiry is tougher than advocacy. Openness is harder than closure. Finding win-win solutions is tougher than playing the win-lose game. From the playground to the boardroom, we are more often schooled in debate than dialogue, so the skills to support each other in this kind of communication have had less chance to be practiced. And, as with all skills, practice is essential to performance.
We pay a price for fostering a debate culture. In our personal lives, that price comes in torn relationships. In our public lives, it comes in a torn social fabric. Our conflicted approach to debating demonstrates our realization that what we might enjoy may not, in the end, be so good for us.
Success and high performance in every field depend on supportive as well as defensive communication. They are two sides of the see-saw of social progress. In our politics, as in other areas, the see-saw is unbalanced as the weight of debate suspends dialogue in mid-air, where it cannot contribute.
What would an encounter of candidates look like under a structure geared for dialogue? Until we can make that possible, we will continue to suffer the damage that "debate nation" has brought us.