Julia Dhar

Julia Dhar: How to disagree productively and find common ground

Some days, it feels like the only thing we can agree on is that we can't agree -- on anything. Drawing on her background as a world debate champion, Julia Dhar offers three techniques to reshape the way we talk to each other so we can start disagreeing productively and finding common ground -- over family dinners, during work meetings and in our national conversations.


Some days, it feels like the only thing we can agree on is that we can't agree on anything. Public discourse is broken. And we feel that everywhere -- panelists on TV are screaming at each other, we go online to find community and connection, and we end up leaving feeling angry and alienated. In everyday life, probably because everyone else is yelling, we are so scared to get into an argument that we're willing not to engage at all. Contempt has replaced conversation.

My mission in life is to help us disagree productively. To find ways to bring truth to light, to bring new ideas to life. I think -- I hope -- that there is a model for structured disagreement that's kind of mutually respectful and assumes a genuine desire to persuade and be persuaded. And to uncover it, let me take you back a little bit.

So, when I was 10 years old, I loved arguing. This, like, tantalizing possibility that you could convince someone of your point of view, just with the power of your words. And perhaps unsurprisingly, my parents and teachers loved this somewhat less.

(Laughter)

And in much the same way as they decided that four-year-old Julia might benefit from gymnastics to burn off some energy, they decided that I might benefit from joining a debate team. That is, kind of, go somewhere to argue where they were not.

(Laughter)

For the uninitiated, the premises of formal debate are really straightforward: there's a big idea on the table -- that we support civil disobedience, that we favor free trade -- and one group of people who speaks in favor of that idea, and one against. My first debate in the cavernous auditorium of Canberra Girls Grammar School was kind of a bundle of all of the worst mistakes that you see on cable news. It felt easier to me to attack the person making the argument rather than the substance of the ideas themselves. When that same person challenged my ideas, it felt terrible, I felt humiliated and ashamed. And it felt to me like the sophisticated response to that was to be as extreme as possible. And despite this very shaky entry into the world of debate, I loved it. I saw the possibility, and over many years worked really hard at it, became really skilled at the technical craft of debate. I went on to win the World Schools Debating Championships three times. I know, you're just finding out that this is a thing.

(Laughter)

But it wasn't until I started coaching debaters, persuaders who are really at the top of their game, that I actually got it. The way that you reach people is by finding common ground. It's by separating ideas from identity and being genuinely open to persuasion. Debate is a way to organize conversations about how the world is, could, should be. Or to put it another way, I would love to offer you my experience-backed, evidence-tested guide to talking to your cousin about politics at your next family dinner; reorganizing the way in which your team debates new proposals; thinking about how we change our public conversation.

And so, as an entry point into that: debate requires that we engage with the conflicting idea, directly, respectfully, face to face. The foundation of debate is rebuttal. The idea that you make a claim and I provide a response, and you respond to my response. Without rebuttal, it's not debate, it's just pontificating. And I had originally imagined that the most successful debaters, really excellent persuaders, must be great at going to extremes. They must have some magical ability to make the polarizing palatable. And it took me a really long time to figure out that the opposite is actually true. People who disagree the most productively start by finding common ground, no matter how narrow it is. They identify the thing that we can all agree on and go from there: the right to an education, equality between all people, the importance of safer communities. What they're doing is inviting us into what psychologists call shared reality. And shared reality is the antidote to alternative facts.

The conflict, of course, is still there. That's why it's a debate. Shared reality just gives us a platform to start to talk about it. But the trick of debate is that you end up doing it directly, face to face, across the table. And research backs up that that really matters. Professor Juliana Schroeder at UC Berkeley and her colleagues have research that suggests that listening to someone's voice as they make a controversial argument is literally humanizing. It makes it easier to engage with what that person has to say.

So, step away from the keyboards, start conversing. And if we are to expand that notion a little bit, nothing is stopping us from pressing pause on a parade of keynote speeches, the sequence of very polite panel discussions, and replacing some of that with a structured debate. All of our conferences could have, at their centerpiece, a debate over the biggest, most controversial ideas in the field. Each of our weekly team meetings could devote 10 minutes to a debate about a proposal to change the way in which that team works. And as innovative ideas go, this one is both easy and free. You could start tomorrow.

(Laughter)

And once we're inside this shared reality, debate also requires that we separate ideas from the identity of the person discussing them. So in formal debate, nothing is a topic unless it is controversial: that we should raise the voting age, outlaw gambling. But the debaters don't choose their sides. So that's why it makes no sense to do what 10-year-old Julia did. Attacking the identity of the person making the argument is irrelevant, because they didn't choose it. Your only winning strategy is to engage with the best, clearest, least personal version of the idea.

And it might sound impossible or naive to imagine that you could ever take that notion outside the high school auditorium. We spend so much time dismissing ideas as democrat or republican. Rejecting proposals because they came from headquarters, or from a region that we think is not like ours. But it is possible. When I work with teams, trying to come up with the next big idea, or solve a really complex problem, I start by asking them, all of them, to submit ideas anonymously.

So by way of illustration, two years ago, I was working with multiple government agencies to generate new solutions to reduce long-term unemployment. Which is one of those really wicked, sticky, well-studied public policy problems. So exactly as I described, right at the beginning, potential solutions were captured from everywhere. We aggregated them, each of them was produced on an identical template. At this point, they all look the same, they have no separate identity. And then, of course, they are discussed, picked over, refined, finalized. And at the end of that process, more than 20 of those new ideas are presented to the cabinet ministers responsible for consideration. But more than half of those, the originator of those ideas was someone who might have a hard time getting the ear of a policy advisor. Or who, because of their identity, might not be taken entirely seriously if they did. Folks who answer the phones, assistants who manage calendars, representatives from agencies who weren't always trusted.

Imagine if our news media did the same thing. You can kind of see it now -- a weekly cable news segment with a big policy proposal on the table that doesn't call it liberal or conservative. Or a series of op-eds for and against a big idea that don't tell you where the writers worked. Our public conversations, even our private disagreements, can be transformed by debating ideas, rather than discussing identity. And then, the thing that debate allows us to do as human beings is open ourselves, really open ourselves up to the possibility that we might be wrong. The humility of uncertainty.

One of the reasons it is so hard to disagree productively is because we become attached to our ideas. We start to believe that we own them and that by extension, they own us. But eventually, if you debate long enough, you will switch sides, you'll argue for and against the expansion of the welfare state. For and against compulsory voting. And that exercise flips a kind of cognitive switch. The suspicions that you hold about people who espouse beliefs that you don't have, starts to evaporate. Because you can imagine yourself stepping into those shoes. And as you're stepping into those, you're embracing the humility of uncertainty. The possibility of being wrong. And it's that exact humility that makes us better decision-makers.

Neuroscientist and psychologist Mark Leary at Duke University and his colleagues have found that people who are able to practice -- and it is a skill -- what those researchers call intellectual humility are more capable of evaluating a broad range of evidence, are more objective when they do so, and become less defensive when confronted with conflicting evidence. All attributes that we want in our bosses, colleagues, discussion partners, decision-makers, all virtues that we would like to claim for ourselves. And so, as we're embracing that humility of uncertainty, we should be asking each other, all of us, a question. Our debate moderators, our news anchors should be asking it of our elective representatives and candidates for office, too. "What is it that you have changed your mind about and why?" "What uncertainty are you humble about?" And this by the way, isn't some fantasy about how public life and public conversations could work. It has precedent.

So, in 1969, beloved American children's television presenter Mister Rogers sits impaneled before the United States congressional subcommittee on communications, chaired by the seemingly very curmudgeonly John Pastore. And Mister Rogers is there to make a kind of classic debate case, a really bold proposal: an increase in federal funding for public broadcasting. And at the outset, committee disciplinarian Senator Pastore is not having it. This is about to end really poorly for Mister Rogers. But patiently, very reasonably, Mister Rogers makes the case why good quality children's broadcasting, the kinds of television programs that talk about the drama that arises in the most ordinary of families, matters to all of us. Even while it costs us. He invites us into a shared reality.

And on the other side of that table, Senator Pastore listens, engages and opens his mind. Out loud, in public, on the record. And Senator Pastore says to Mister Rogers, "You know, I'm supposed to be a pretty tough guy, and this is the first time I've had goosebumps in two days." And then, later, "It looks like you just earned the 20 million dollars." We need many more Mister Rogers. People with the technical skills of debate and persuasion. But on the other side of that table, we need many, many, many more Senator Pastores. And the magic of debate is that it lets you, it empowers you to be both Mister Rogers and Senator Pastore simultaneously.

When I work with those same teams that we talked about before, I ask them at the outset to pre-commit to the possibility of being wrong. To explain to me and to each other what it would take to change their minds. And that's all about the attitude, not the exercise. Once you start thinking about what it would take to change your mind, you start to wonder why you were quite so sure in the first place. There is so much that the practice of debate has to offer us for how to disagree productively. And we should bring it to our workplaces, our conferences, our city council meetings. And the principles of debate can transform the way that we talk to one another, to empower us to stop talking and to start listening. To stop dismissing and to start persuading. To stop shutting down and to start opening our minds.

Thank you so much.

(Applause)