The argument ‘rabbit hole’: debate, discussion, or dialogue

This particular excursion down the rabbit hole started aimlessly enough, browsing a table of new releases on the way out the door of the (increasingly rare) bookstore.

Good arguments

Bo Seo’s new book Good Arguments: What the art of debating can teach us about listening better and disagreeing well caught my eye. Perhaps my high school debating experience was the hook, because I have long believed that extracurricular activities of this type played a large role in shaping my policy and governance career. Perhaps it was the promise of learning how to “disagree well” at a time when polarised ‘debates’ and toxic discourse are recurring themes in much of my work with clients across a wide range of organisations.

I didn’t spend a lot of time deciding to buy the book, and confess I didn’t expect to read it in one sitting. Being a non-fiction book, I thought it might be more like a reference. Something I would dip into, extracting a few key points for use with my clients. Instead, Bo took me on a spellbinding journey of self-reflection, growth, and vicarious enjoyment from start to finish.

Good Arguments reminded me somewhat of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which invited philosophical reflection on lived experience ‘in the moment’. Seo tells the story of how he and his debating team colleagues won two world debate championships, while simultaneously revealing his evolving insights into critical thinking, seeing an issue through your ‘adversary’s eyes’, and using powerful communication tools to engage your audience. Beyond a set of rules for debating (see chart below), he shares vulnerable private moments where communication problems and arguments with family and friends were catalysts for him to think about how his rules could be applied to improve relationships.

I came away from reading Good Arguments thinking of it as a hybrid suspense novel/memoir/manual. Thank you, Bo Seo!

Down the rabbit hole

So why did this enjoyable reading experience turn into a ‘rabbit hole’?

First, there is the apparent contradiction, that an argument is an essential component of rational thinking, while it can also be a contentious (irrational) dispute. As a tool for rational deliberation, making a good argument is at the heart of policy analysis and decision-making. Strong arguments should win and weak arguments should lose. But of course, that’s not always the case.

When we are argumentative, or scornful of other perspectives, we shift from rational to emotional, or biased thinking. This happens all the time in board and management meetings and is one of the key culture problems we all encounter. I first encountered it in SRC meetings at secondary school, but have since seen it across decades of attendance at board meetings of formally constituted statutory, non-profit, and commercial organisations.

Both logical and contentious arguments can occur within a single debate of course, so participants in board deliberations need to keep a watchful eye on signs of disputation (‘bad’ arguments) as opposed to respectful disagreement (‘good’ arguments). Circuit breakers may be required to restore a respectful tone to the discussion. For instance, the chair might need to be ready to call a break or to suggest the matter be deferred until the next meeting to restore peace.

Arguments may be triggered where two parties believe they are defending ‘the truth’ – but their so-called ‘truths’ are different, or in conflict. One of the ways this disputed truth problem can arise is attributable to the Semmelweis Reflex.

Thank you, Dr Semmelweis

The Semmelweis Reflex is the name for a tendency to reject new evidence or knowledge because it does not align with established beliefs, norms or paradigms. This kind of reflexive thinking is similar to the ‘fast (automatic) thinking’ identified by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in their research into behavioural economics. This contrasted with the ‘slow (rational) thinking’ which had been assumed to be the norm in governance (and indeed more broadly).

In 1847 Ignaz Semmelweis recommended that hospital doctors reduce child mortality rates by washing their hands between performing autopsies and treating children who suffered high fevers. He met strong resistance from the medical establishment, often for non-medical reasons, such as it was not possible for a gentleman’s hands to transmit disease. This observation about the medical profession of the time acting as guardians of the ‘historical truth’ led me to my next ‘tangential exploration’ (down the rabbit hole).

Truth Guardians or Seekers?

Inspired by Dr Semmelweis, I googled ‘Guardians of the Truth‘, and came across Eliezer Yudkowsky’s 2015 book Rationality: from AI to Zombies. In one of the essays in this large collection, Yudkowsky draws a distinction between truth guardians and truth seekers (see illustration below). Truth guardians take a defensive posture towards what they know and believe – locating their ideals in the past (e.g. the Golden Age). Truth seekers locate their ideals in the future and recognise that experiments and reflection on experience can override authority and create new truths or paradigm shifts.

As famously recognised by Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, when paradigm shifts occur in science, an historical truth may remain largely true, but be subsumed within or qualified by a larger truth as new discoveries are made (e.g. from a Newtonian paradigm to Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity). Kuhn’s paradigm shift theory was itself contested of course. Sir Karl Popper (1902–1994) identified that science also advances by the development of a ‘bold new hypothesis’, not only by deducing models from observation.

Debate, discussion or dialogue

Seo’s prompts to reflect on debate then led me to think more about respectful disagreement in the context of non-profit decision-making.

Most non-profits have a formal set of standing orders, or an understanding that parliamentary procedure can be resorted to should it be required. These formal rules of debate are rarely used in practice though, as most boards recognise that consensus decision-making is preferable. Consequently, discussions tend to be more free-ranging, and calling for a limited number of speakers for and against a resolution feels stiff and stuffy.

While directors have a role in respecting the past and observing rules, they also have a responsibility to innovate. Constructive responses are required to sometimes complex and volatile shifts in stakeholder needs. These responses need not be framed as a battle between ‘this’ or ‘that’ view. Instead, boards may find that contentious behaviours can be avoided by accommodating both ‘this’ and that’ perspectives (taking into account all relevant ethical, moral, legal, and practical considerations of course). Disagreements will inevitably arise, but these need not be triggers for disputation or acrimony.

Lawrence M Miller developed an insightful set of distinctions between debate, discussion and dialogue, which he summarised in two key diagrams- adapted into a single chart below. His description of the vicious and virtuous cycles offers a useful analysis of the steps involved in each – although my experience suggests that these ‘steps’ may not always occur in the numerical sequence his diagram proposes.

Behavioural styles

Another way of thinking about the tone of board deliberations is to consider the various behavioural styles we demonstrate at various points in governance or management meetings. Rather than thinking of our meeting participation style as a fixed characteristic, we can recognise that the behaviour we each demonstrate is always a matter of choice. In that sense, we can label the behaviour, and not the person – allowing them to choose different modes of behaviour as they become more aware of their effect on others.

Each demonstrated behaviour is an expression of a preference, triggered by their subconscious reaction or their mindful response to catalysts – such as the prior speaker’s reasoning or manner.

The charts below describe various leadership styles or deliberative mode choices, but they could just as easily describe a menu of behavioural dispositions from which participants may choose at any given point during a meeting. Similarly, the conversational or discourse mode to be used is a choice. The collection of discourse style models below illustrates some of the ways these styles or modes can be presented. While Seo’s book argues well for debating, I tend to prefer the dialogue mode for non-profit deliberation, as it emphasises shared purposes. It also intends to achieve a consensus decision rather than to define winners and losers from ‘the contest of ideas’ or arguments.

The bottom of the rabbit hole

And so, having started my journey with a somewhat random (but fruitful) book purchase, I think I may now have reached the bottom of this particular rabbit hole. Hopefully, sharing these reflections offers you some helpful catalysts for thinking about your own choice of discourse and behavioural styles – for the benefit of your organisation and its stakeholders.

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