I'll take tact for 500, Alex.

I hear this term "healthy debate" all the time.  Okay...  I know healthy debates exist and that many people are capable of having them.  I, on the other hand, struggle with this.  Debates are generally not healthy for me because they come with side effects like high blood pressure, sleeplessness, and that curse known as the inability to move on.

There is a time and place for debate, and it doesn't have to be adversarial.  Debate is, by definition, the discussion of two opposing view points.  It doesn't have to be emotional (but for me it automatically is) and it doesn't have to be about winning (but for me everything is).  I believe healthy debate is aimed at enlightening one another on topics about which we tend to have one opinion, the only right opinion...in our own humble opinion. 

While I love learning about everything and feel strongly about many things, I tend to be a listener rather than a debater.  I will listen to two people debate each other all day long, especially when it's without name-calling and condescension.  As soon as those two people turn to me for my opinion, I start to sweat.  And I mean profusely.  I start thinking about the implications of giving my opinion.  Automatically I assume that one of them will not like me if I don't side with them.  (I'm serious.  Apparently, I'm still in middle school.)  I'm afraid that I will hurt someone's feelings, that they will think less of me, that they will think I'm anything from uneducated to elitist, from too liberal to too conservative, from merciless to overly compassionate.  And depending on the subject matter, I'm probably a little bit of all of that (among other things).

The reason I assume that people will label me such things if I give my true opinion is because I do it.  I wholeheartedly albeit ashamedly admit that I am a snap-labeler.  (And the list of character flaws continues to grow....)  But hey, admitting it is the first step, right?  This so called snap-labeling is actually just a nice way of saying that I cast judgment.  It's not that I mean to judge the opinions of others, it just kind of...happens.  Judgment is dangerous.  It insinuates superiority.  It suggests that any of us actually have the authority to judge.  It also prevents us from learning.  Judgment is a barrier. 

It is important for me to note that judgment of someone's opinion on one issue is not the same thing as a judgment of that person.  My own fear of being judged is fed by my lack of confidence and perhaps, because I know that my opinions are not air-tight.  That's why debate is healthy.  It will either change your mind or solidify your original opinion.

Aside from the fear of being snap-labeled, I have a bigger problem with debating.  It's the potential for things to get ugly.  Fast.  I was born into a family of peacemakers (at least, I like to think of it that way.  What we actually do is deny that there's a problem at all, but I digress...).  We have a tendency to sugar-coat things ad nauseum, so as not to make people upset.  What we say is the truth, it's just with carefully chosen words so that we offend as few people as possible.

There's not necessarily anything wrong with that.  Though it's probably a little overkill sometimes.

It sets me up for a list though.  You're going to love it.  (Maybe.)

Jennie's Keys to Healthy Debate
1.  Know what you believe and why.  (Well, duh, right?  But so many people believe something only because they have been told it's what they should believe.)
2.  Say what you want to say in such a way that you "make your point without making an enemy".  (That, friends, is the definition of tact.)

Tact is something our culture lacks.  Kind of like chivalry (which is not completely dead...yet), tact is dying.  We have become so self-centered as a society, that we do not care who we offend, how we say what we believe, or what other people believe is right for them.  We disregard the opinions and feelings of others to pursue our own individual agendas.  I believe that debate (or discussion) can be healthy and is often necessary.  It's how we recognize alternatives.  Debate might not change someone's mind, but it can plant a seed.  The fate of the seed is often unknown.  The seed might ultimately sprout or it might die where it was planted.  But the first step is to plant it.

Seeds aren't generally successful at sprouting when you squash them between your fingertips, throw them on the ground, shove them into the hard dirt by mashing them with the toe of your boot, and walk away.  Seeds require care.  They require a gentle touch.  The soil where the seed will be planted has to be prepped, loosened.  When the seed is in the ground, it's not over.  It needs sunlight, water, and sometimes (for those hard-to-grow types) it requires the extra boost of a little fertilizer simply to grow. 

You can approach the same scenario in two very different ways and come away with two very different results.  The same applies to debate.  If the goal is to convince others that you are in the right, then it matters very much HOW you say what you say, not just what you're saying. No one I have ever known enjoys being ground into the dirt with the toe of a boot.

And that's it, folks.  A two item list.  Now it's time for me to take my own advice and get debating discussing.


Diane said...

I'm glad you decided to use this as a blog topic! I like your treatment of it, especially the analogy to the seeds.

how you say something is often more important than what you say. And you'll often find that others will agree with you for your openness, your approach, and your ability to listen - or at least respect your viewpoint even if they disagree. Well done!

Jennie said...

Thanks for the encouragement, Diane! I'm ashamed to admit I rely on that little nudge from others a little too much.

I could go on for a long time on the subject. Maybe I'll save that for "Double Jeopardy" some day. :)

Debbie said...

This is an excellent post! I had to read it twice to fully absorb the many well made points. (why... I do believe you are a debater!)

I loved the seed analogy. Excellent.
You are right about tact too.
And you're right about civility. (THAT one I am almost certain is about to flat line.)

I'm a debater and was born into a nest of them. However, there are some topics, and some people, with whom I won't debate, either because I'm too passionate about the topic or because the person in question makes it personal and gets angry.

I REALLY hate for people to be angry with me.

My longest comment ever. No debate about that.

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