The Guide to Productive Debate
This guide is designed for political discussions, which are relevant but often end in frustration or hatred. I try to use it to make my own discussions as productive as possible.
We form our beliefs through emotion - meaning that unless one fundamentally understands their core beliefs, their assumptions of the world will be flawed.
So when one’s beliefs on consequential political topics are heavily opposed and criticized, it’s natural for even temperamental individuals to succumb to exasperation.
Here is how you can separate the irrational from your reasoning.
Don’t demonize the other side. The objective of the debate is to expand your worldview. Be willing to change your mind.
Clarify core assumptions of everyone in the debate. It’s useful to explicitly state and try to agree upon these assumptions.
Start presenting each argument. Try to connect the argument to fundamental assumptions.
Conclude by either one or both sides changing their perspective, or by realizing each participant has different values.
“I know you’re doing what you believe in, and that’s all any of us can do. That’s all any of us should…” - Steve Rogers
Your first objective of any debate should be to understand why the other person believes what they believe. Do not demonize the other side. Neither person’s objective is to win the debate - it’s to collectively reach a more objective truth by pulling from previously unheard perspectives.
The other person isn’t evil; they are simply advocating for what they believe.
Remember that you don’t know everything; your worldview is never complete. Even if you are very well-read, being an expert means rigidity in your foundational understanding.
Clarify core assumptions
Let’s imagine that you’ve now been arguing for 20 minutes and the discussion is going nowhere. Take a pause, and clarify your beliefs with the other person.
While our fundamental assumptions about the world are often vastly different, we automatically assume that everyone else has the same assumptions.
A core part of empathy is being able to dissect another person’s core beliefs and understand how it affects their broader views.
Example 1: Cofounder Motivations
Bob and Dave start a lemonade stand.
They run it on the weekends, Bob on
Saturday and Dave on Sunday, 3 hours
every day.After 3 months, they have made
a profit of $10,000 and split it between them.
All is going well until Dave wants to expand,
open more stands, and get other minions to
join until they have a monopoly on lemonade
in their town. Bob doesn’t like the idea - he
started the lemonade stand to acquire capital
to start investing in stocks. He has no interest in
From the outside, it’s easy to see that Bob
and Dave possess different ambitions for
the lemonade stand. However, unless they
discussed their motivations beforehand, Dave
couldn’t have known that Bob didn’t share his
passion. Dave should have communicated his
expectations right from the beginning.
The same logic applies to political and personal discussions, but in a much more nuanced manner.
Example 2: Pro-choice VS Pro-life
In light of the recent overturn of Roe VS Wade, I was thinking about why pro-choice and pro-life advocates are so divided. What are the underlying assumptions and values that each side has that makes them advocate so strongly for their beliefs?
Disclaimer: this line of reasoning only pertains to the value of preserving human rights, and is highly oversimplified. Abortion is highly complex, and there exist many more arguments for both sides, including but not limited to the topics of gender equality and safety of the mother.
As you can see, while most people believe that to preserve human life is the end goal, their perspectives on the matter are in stark contrast. Pro-choice advocates simply want less children to grow up disadvantaged; they don’t hate babies. Similarly, pro-life advocates simply want children to have the opportunity to lead a life; they don’t hate mothers.
It’s easy to alienate those on the other side of the aisle. However, our differences can often be attributed to differing moral philosophies. In fact, pro-life and pro-choice fit the values of deontology and utilitarianism strikingly well.
Most topics of discussion are not as black and white as the debate around abortion. For these grey debates, laying out core assumptions will help set the foundation for mutual understanding.
After presenting both sides, point out logical flaws or unaligned core assumptions
Each person should explain their line of reasoning - why they believe what they believe. Present the full story on why you believe that topic. The 5 Why’s exercise helps.
After both people have presented, a few scenarios will occur
Both sides alter their beliefs to become more nuanced in order to incorporate the other person’s argument.
Logical flaws or ignorance exist within the arguments within one or both sides, and one or both sides are refusing to give up their side of the argument. Since this is the most common outcome of political discussions, here are my suggestions:
If both sides’ conclusions are different even after critiquing each other’s logical reasonings, there is a fundamental assumption that they disagree on. Thus, try to identify another belief you disagree on. It’s crucial to keep asking “why” in order to understand each other’s perspectives.
If the person you’re debating with isn’t willing to do any of the above (enter the debate with an open mind, clarify their inner assumptions, formulate their argument and consider yours to be valid too, and dive deep to search for differentiating assumptions), don’t bother with the discussion in the first place.